1. An Unfortunate Sequence of Events
Gout and dropsy plagued old Lord Staverton’s last years, but it was the pneumonia he caught during the hard winter of 1811-12 that finally carried him off. A hardened gamester, he had left his estates encumbered with so much mortgage debt that the income barely covered the interest payments. His son and heir, John had similar expensive tastes in entertainment, and as a captain in the army of occupation in Paris had many chances to indulge them. His daughter Charlotte secretly yearned for the chance to experience the exciting life of the ton in London, but was by far the most level headed of the last of the DeVere’s and merely hoped to keep clearing housekeeping. No sooner had his vicar and somewhat more sober crony from the old days, Dr. Answorth buried him in the churchyard than an express bearing bad news arrived from Paris.
John enjoyed the night life in Paris after Napoleon fled to Elba. He and his brother officers sought release from their memories of the real dangers and hardships of the Spanish campaign with the thrills of gambling, drinking and whoring late into the morning. His particular road to perdition was dice. In a desperate attempt to clear himself from his debts, he threw double or nothing hoping to sum more than double threes. He threw snake-eyes. Left with 50,000 pounds in debt and no way to pay it, he quaffed his last glass of champagne then headed upstairs do to ‘the honorable thing’ in his room. The gamblers below hardly noticed the bang when he blew his brains out.
A few days later the family solicitor, Mr. Cruise, gathered Miss Charlotte DeVere and her friends Dr. Answorth and Mrs. Answorth together to read the will and decide what to do with the estate. The situation was dire.
“Miss DeVere, your father’s estate was severely encumbered, and your brother Mr. John’s debts were the last straw. I’m afraid you will have to sell Staverton Hall, its contents and grounds. As you know the London house went years ago. Maybe we can keep some of your mother’s jewels.”
“Surely my mother’s portion should come to me. I can live on that.”
“Yes it should, but the interest on 10,000 pounds is hardly sufficient for the costs of the estate. To be blunt, even if we sell the Hall at a favorable price there may not be enough proceeds left over to cover the portion due you.”
Charlotte gasped, “Surely.”
“I’m sorry but until the estate is fully settled, there is nothing for you. I could give you 5000 pounds in return for your signing your portion over to me when it is finally settled. I’m confident that the settlement will not be much higher.”
Dr. Answorth hardly needed the prodding his wife and helpmate gave him to speak. “No! None of this. Miss DeVere, you can stay with us while this is sorted out. At the vicarage. I mean your father helped with my preferment and I am glad to repay the favor.”
Mrs. Answorth continued in a more coherent manner. “Miss DeVere, you know we’ve never had children and the rectory is so big. Dr. Answorth and I just rattle around in it. It would be a great favor if you’d come and stay with us. We’d like to have the company of young people again.”
Charlotte started to refuse, then realized that there was no way to refuse without hurting her friends. “I – I couldn’t impose on you, but if you insist, I’d be happy to stay at the vicarage.”
Mrs. Answorth clapped her hands with joy. “Then it’s settled, you’ll move in with us. We’ll make a happy family while you sell the hall. Then we can see what fortune awaits.”
A few days later Mrs. Answorth looked exhausted in the morning at breakfast. “It’s Dr. Answorth. He’s caught a chill again and I was up all night nursing him.”
Charlotte inquired after his health.
“It’s not bad, but he sinks so low when he is ill. Unfortunately, I am promised to visit with the old widow Mrs. Chatsworth this morning.”
“I could do it Mrs. Answorth, if you’d like. I’d like to be helpful. You’ve done so much for me.”
“If it’s not an imposition. I don’t want to make you a drudge Miss Charlotte.”
“No it’s not. I need the walk. Is there anything I should bring her?”
“Just your company. Her son looks after her wants, but she’s housebound and gets so lonely. She used to be able to make it to church on Sundays, but recently even that’s become too difficult for her, poor thing.”
Charlotte went back upstairs to her room and changed from her delicate muslins into the coarse woolen dress she wore when she went rambling about the countryside. As she descended, Mrs Answorth remarked, “You look just like a farmers daughter, Miss Charlotte. Shouldn’t I send for the carriage and have you dress as befits your station?”
“My station? The daughter of a profligate old gambler who spent us into the poorhouse. No I’ve had enough of these airs. Besides, this way I can wander about for the exercise.”
“Surely Mrs. Chatsworth will appreciate my company, even if I dress like this.” She looked at the weather when she left the vicarage. It looked from the clouds like the weather were changing, but the morning promised to remain fair.
The Chatsworth farm was a few miles away from the vicarage, but the weather held clear and Charlotte made good time. She was nearly there when a young man in a curricle pulled up beside her and stopped. He was dressed in the latest London fashion with a tall almost conical hat with a curly brim, stiff collars so high that he could only turn his head with difficulty, a tie whose mathematical excellence required an hour in the morning to achieve and a traveling cloak with several layers and buttons as wide as his hands. His horses were showy horses that had been advertised as ‘fifteen miles an hour tits’. Charlotte looked at them with dismay, they may have been showy, but they were in poor condition and exhausted. If they did fifteen miles an hour, it was only for a few minutes at a time. The man’s tiger evidently agreed and met her glance by looking away in shame.
“I say, countrywoman, is this the way to Staverton Hall? The directions they gave at the pub in the village were so confusing. This road is so small and muddy, I’m sure we must be lost.” The road was one of the better ones in the district.
“Why do you ask?”
“I’m thinking of buying it, but my old man told me to always inspect the goods before laying out my blunt. He is a canny one he is. So before I offer, I want to see it.”
“Oh. Well, yes. You’re on the right path. It’s a mile past the next farm, on the right. Though you might want to return by the main road. Go out the front gate and you can’t miss it.”
“Well, that’s simple then. Thank you. Just to show that Frederick Oswith isn’t a welsher, here’s this.” He tossed her a shilling, then hied his horses and drove off.
Charlotte fumed, “What a mushroom, a bobbing block and a fool, I hope he doesn’t buy my hall.” all the way to Mrs. Chatsworth’s.
Mrs. Chatsworth was overwhelmed by her visitor, the daughter of the lord of the manor, and last of the DeVeres. Charlotte did her best to reassure the old woman, and in the end, after an hour or so of conversation she departed.
Charlotte climbed the down to see her beloved home, so soon to become the abode of someone else. Possibly even that detestable mushroom she’d met on the road. She shuddered at the thought, then turned and started towards the main road to make a loop out of her walk. The weather, which had started so clement began to darken with the threat of rain. The threat became real as a steady drizzle began to soak down.
The noise of a curricle approaching from behind interrupted her reverie. That young man was driving past her again. She forced herself to look away. It didn’t help. He stopped and asked her, “Countrywoman, since you were so helpful and it is starting to rain, would you like a ride to the village? I have to find that blasted solicitor.”
The raindrops coming both larger and more frequently forced Charlotte to accept. With the help of the tiger, she mounted the curricle. The man introduced himself, “I’m Freddy Oswith. My father saved up the readies and wants me to find a suitable country estate for my family. I’ve been looking for one for the last two years. It seems like forever. Finally found it.”
“And you are?”
Charlotte looked away, both in shame and shyness. Freddy muttered “Suit yourself,” to himself and urged his pair onwards. After a few moments he shot a glance at his fair companion. She was uncommonly good looking, not at all what he expected a farm woman to look like, and yet, somehow she looked familiar. He thought for a moment then realized he’d seen her portrait at the hall.
“You’re Miss DeVere, aren’t you? The owner of the hall.”
Charlotte reluctantly admitted that was true.
“Then what are you doing out here, dressed like a farm woman? I’d like to know.”
“Visiting an elderly neighbor who needed the company.”
“Ah, the noblisse oblige. I guess I might have to learn to do that.”
“No, usually Mrs. Answorth visits her. She couldn’t do it today so I did.” Charlotte looked away. This conversation was over as far as she was concerned. Closer acquaintance hadn’t improved her opinion of Mr. Oswith. Freddy, in his usual style, didn’t understand subtle messages. He turned to her and asked, “Why are you selling? It’s a spanking place, just what the doctor ordered.”
Unfortunately Freddy should have concentrated on his driving. He wasn’t a good enough driver to let his concentration lapse, no matter how charming its object. His leads got caught in the near horse’s feet, then wrapped around the right axle of his curricle. In a moment, the horse stumbled, the thill snapped and the curricle pitched sideways dumping him and his fair passenger into a tangled heap in the mud and slough on the side of the road. After a few physicalintimacies that wentwell beyond the normal bounds of social etiquette, Charlotte and Freddy managed to disentangle themselves and stood by the side of the road.
His tiger, normally taciturn started to speak. “Governor, she’s broke, and the near horse probably lamed.”
Having adjusted her dress and dusted as much muck from it as she could, Charlotte gave Freddy her fiercest gaze. She shouldn’t have done that because it was also her prettiest gaze. Freddy was dazzled rather than threatened. “Mr. Oswith, we will neverspeak of this again.”
“Fine, suits me. Not my finest hour, you know. Can you walk to the village?”
She nodded. The pain only added to her intense dislike of the parvenu. Freddy addressed his tiger, “Henry, it looks like you’ll have to manage the horses and curricle yourself. I’ll support Miss DeVere.”
“I’m sorry Miss DeVere, but it’s raining hard already, and will only get worse. You’re coming with me.”
Freddy gave a hopeful glance at his tiger Henry, expectingdeliverance from his burden. Unfortunately,Henry replied, “Miss, no, they’ve never bornea rider.”
// NOTE just to the east of Holt is a farm a Whaddon ln and semington brook. Fits the bill.
Early the next morning the gig from the rectory arrived for Miss DeVere. Dr. and Mrs. Answorth drove to retrieve their charge from her dire straights. While Mrs. Answorth ascended the stairs to help Charlotte get ready, Dr. Answorth interviewed Freddy. Since his valet hadn’t arrived from Staverton, Freddy was still dressed in his partially cleaned clothes from the day before. He felt embarrassingly scruffy, but compared to the rest of the clientèle of the pub, including the local farmers who dropped in to see this foreigner from London who might become their new landlord, he was still elegantly dressed.
Dr. Answorth began the conversation, “Mr. Oswith, how do you find our little village?”
“Primitive, but surprisingly pleasant.”
“Look at my clothes, I say, there is no laundry here that could properly clean them. This jacket is thoroughly ruined. On the other hand, I spent last night drinking in the company of the farmers. Decent folks.”
“You liked them?”
“I’d better learn to like them, if I’m planning to plant my family here I’ll have to work with them.”
“Is that your intent? To settle here.”
“The hall is in an excellent location, and the land around it seems fertile enough. I still need to talk to the steward, but I’d be surprised if I don’t. Do you think the locals will take to a new owner?”
“Not to speak ill of my late patron, if you invest in the estate, you’ll be welcomed. It might take a ‘summering in’, but they’ll take to you in the end.”
“That’s what I thought. They certainly appreciated my standing them a round of ale.”
“True, but don’t expect you can bribe them.”
“They’ll take your ale, but it doesn’t change their minds. If they think you’re trying to buy friendship they’ll reject you.”
Freddy chuckled, “No I don’t expect that. But it did get the conversation flowing. Now at least I know a few names and faces, as well as a little of the local history.”
Mrs. Answorth descended from upstairs, with Charlotte behind her. Her erstwhile housemaid Betsy supported Charlotte as she painfully limped down. At the bottom of the stairs, they stopped and had a few words of parting with Freddy. At least Mrs. Answorth did, Charlotte mostly glared at him.
“Mr. Oswith,” Mrs. Answorth began, “I have to thank you for the care you extended to Miss DeVere. From everything she’s said, you must have been most attentive to her needs.”
“It was nothing, after all it was my accident that-”
Charlotte’s commentary stopped him. “Accident, Hmmp. Sloppy driving, that’s what it was.”
Freddy smiled, “Perhaps, after we’ve concluded our business about the hall, you could give me a few lessons in how to drive in style.”
The Answorths’ laughed, while Charlotte reddened with embarrassment. She blurted, “I could, but not with such a backward student.”
Mrs. Answorth snapped, “Charlotte! Please!”
Freddy took it in good form, “No offense taken, Miss DeVere is uncomfortable, in pain from her ankle, and I’m sure that must try even the most uniform of tempers.”
Charlotte continued to glare at him as they left. Was there nothing she could do that would pierce his calm demeanor?
The steward paid Freddy a visit between Miss DeVere’s departure and his valet’s arrival. Mr. Barford was impressed with Freddy. This young man demanded, then carefully read and questioned, the account books for the hall and the farms that made up the estate. Neither Lord Staverton nor his son had ever bothered with them.
“Mr. Barford, this item, drainage and road improvements, doesn’t add properly.”
“If you would look on the second page, you will see it is proper.”
“Ah yes, I see. Very good.”
“The farm leases all seem to be short term. Surely a longer term lease would be better?”
“Lord Staverton was always in need of ready money.”
“Ah. That explains many things. This land could produce more if it were properly managed.”
“Mr. Oswith, not to speak ill of the dead, but Lord Staverton was not able to maintain the estate as it should be.”
“I thought so. I would very much dislike to waste my blunt. In its current state the estate is hardly worth anything, but it has capability. To make it really profitable will need a serious investment.”
This exchange left Mr. Barford in the tentative hope that Mr. Oswith intended to develop the estate as it should be developed, to bring it up to its potential. Lord Staverton’s continued neglect and disinterest had been a constant thorn in his side. Even his proposals for inexpensive and simple improvements had been consistently ignored for various abortive ‘get rich quick’ schemes that further improverished the estate.
Having reviewed the books, and more importantly received a message via his long-suffering tiger that his father approved the deal, Freddy approached the solicitor. Though first he told Henry, “Good Lord man, you must be exhausted.”
Henry admitted that maybe, perhaps, he was a little bit fagged. Since Henry never, ever admitted weakness, Freddy understood this to mean he was ready to drop where he stood. “Well then, I’m not planning on a trip for the next few days. Why don’t you get some sleep?”
Three days after their initial meeting, Miss DeVere and Mr. Oswith met in the offices of her solicitor. Somehow Mr. Oswith brought his solicitor from London and the steward, Mr. Barford was invited. Dr. and Mrs. Answorth accompanied their friend to the negotiations over the disposition of her inheritance.
Freddy was resplendent in a yellow and blue striped waistcoat, a tight-fitting coat of red superfine, yellow calf-clingers, high starched collars, and an intricately tied tie. His man, Phelps, had restored most of the gloss to his boots, but their sojourn on country roads was not completely repairable with the resources at hand. He cheerfully rapped on the solicitor’s door and then walked in.
“Am I late? My sense of time has become deplorably inaccurate recently.”
While the others merely acknowledged his entrance with a nod of their head or a brief wave, Charlotte glared at him. Impervious to hints, as usual, Freddy continued, “Miss DeVere, how is your ankle?”
“Good, capital, capital. Are you up to dancing yet? There’s always a ball in Bath and it isn’t too far away to make a dash.”
“No? Oh well then, pleasantries aside, on to business.”
Mr. Cruise began, “Mr. Oswith, do you have an offer for the house, contents and the demesne, that is the grounds surrounding it?”
Freddy, suddenly serious, replied, “That’s barely worth a thousand, but I’ll be generous, say eleven hundred.”
“Please be serious and don’t waste my time.”
“I am always serious, the hall is run down, and the demesne is not large enough to produce income. Now if you were talking about the whole of the estate, I could go higher, say twenty thousand.”
Charlotte interjected here, “The farms are not for sale. I intend to run them.”
“If you say so, but they are heavily mortgaged and you are already late on the payments.”
“Moulder’s bank has always understood that we will pay after the harvest, when we receive our accounts from the farmers.”
“True, they are a bit overgenerous when it comes to business matters, but have you checked with the new bond holders?”
Charlotte gasped, shaken, “New bond holders?”
“Yes, the mortgage bonds were for sale, pennies on the pound. Your father’s and now your ability to repay was considered highly suspect and the bank was very happy to settle. They often are willing to write off bad debts and clear their books.”
“Oh, and I suppose you know the new bond holders.”
“Intimately.” Freddy smiled.
Charlotte suddenly realized what he meant. “You own them, don’t you!”
Freddy looked down, in what could be thought to be shame, but in reality to hide his amusement. It was refreshing to deal with a novice, a pretty novice, albeit one who seemed to intensely dislike him, but a novice at business nonetheless. Once he had his facial expression back in control, he looked up at Charlotte, “Well, yes. Now are you serious about making a go of the estate without the hall?”
“Of course. In the past the income covered the interest, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t succeed.”
“If you say so, but foreclosure is such an ugly word. There is this little matter of principle as well.”
“Principles? I didn’t think you had any.”
“In business, no, none at all. In private matters, of course I do. But I mean the principle of the mortgage. You can’t just pay some of the interest forever, the debt will just grow. After going over the estate’s books with Mr. Barford, I don’t think you don’t have much choice in the matter.”
Charlotte gave a concerned look at her solicitor. She appeared lost and helpless. It made her look especially pretty to Freddy. He found himself unaccustomedly softening to her, thinking that she really was out of her depth in dealing with business like this.
“Tell you what,” Freddy continued, “Since you’re new to the business, I’ll go take a walk. Let you discuss it with your people. I’ll be back in, oh, say a quarter of an hour or so.” Addressing his solicitor he continued, “Mr. Bayliss, if you would and if it doesn’t put you in a conflict, could you stay and advise them?”
“Advise them sir?”
“Assure them of my ability to pay, business credentials, general reputation, things like that they may question.”
“Sir, as long as you are not expecting me to advise them on terms.”
“Oh no, not at all. That would be unethical.”
With that Freddy left.
Charlotte shot a panicky look at her solicitor, Mr. Cruise. “What am I going to do? He wouldn’t leave me destitute would he?”
Dr. Answorth interjected, “That would be wrong, wouldn’t it?”
Mr. Cruise wasn’t sure, so he asked Mr. Bayliss, “Your employer, Mr. Oswith, would he do such a thing?”
Bayliss coughed, and carefully considered his words before replying. “While they are personally charming and generous, if perhaps a bit vulgar and not to everyone’s taste; the Oswiths are ruthless in business matters. They won’t cheat you, but they will drive a hard bargain and expect you to hold to the letter of the contract.”
Charlotte queried, “Contract, what contract?”
“Your mortgages, for example are a contract where you promise to pay back funds with interest on a given schedule. They’re all legal and correct, but if you default on them, he won’t hesitate to foreclose.”
“Oh. Mr. Barford, doesn’t the income from the farms cover the payments? Father thought it did.”
“On a good year, yes.”
“So I don’t really have many choices, do I? It’s either sell my estate to him or he will take it from me.”
Mr. Bayless frowned, dealing with clients whom his employers had cornered was his least favorite part of being the Oswith’s solicitor. “Miss DeVere, Mr. Oswith often arranges matters that way in business. I’m sorry for you. Why do you think they are successful?”
Mrs. Answorth added, in a very quiet voice. “You do have one choice, Charlotte. I hesitate to suggest it, but Mr. Oswith is single.”
“It’s not as if you would be able to marry for love in any case.”
“But not him. Not someone I detest.”
Dr. Answorth added, “Think about it. He’s personable, seems to have decent manners and morals, and more importantly, he is rich. That rich marzipan can help you swallow an otherwise bitter pill.”
His wife continued, “You know you can’t marry freely, where you’d like. There are few of your rank who will or for that matter can marry a penniless bride. Mr. Oswith might, if you were nice to him. If he saw it as an advantage. At least he isn’t vicious.”
“Nothing will ever induce me to marry that bounder. Why just look at how he treated his tiger. Sent him to London and back in a day’s trip, and that was after a hard day riding around Staverton Hall.”
Mr. Bayliss coughed to draw attention to himself again. “Henry has nothing to complain about. He is very well paid to be a confidential messenger for the Oswiths.”
Charlotte replied, “Is being well paid all that matters to you? How about loyalty?”
Bayliss continued, “Loyalty goes both ways, Mr. Oswith is very loyal to his employees, looks after their needs and expects their loyalty in return. Henry’s invalid mother is at the rheumatic hospital in Bath. Henry thinks it’s on charity. It’s not.”
Freddy, on entering, overheard that last exchange. “I’d appreciate it if you could keep that secret. Henry would be upset if he found out.”
Bayliss thought, “I’d be willing to bet Henry knows.” but kept his thoughts to himself. He added aloud, “Mr. Oswith, I wish you would let people know about your charities.”
“Sorry Mr. Bayliss, no, that’s a private matter. I don’t desire the attention. Charity is not charity if you use it to publicize yourself. I might be wealthy, but thank God I’m not a Pharisee.”
Freddy then sat down at the table across from Charlotte and asked simply. “Have you made a decision, or should I go back to the pub and get a pint while you continue discussions?”
Charlotte gave Freddy an intense look of dislike. Mrs. Answorth broke in, “Dr. Answorth had a suggestion. You and Miss DeVere could get married. That way she could stay in her estate.”
Freddy laughed. It took him no little time to compose himself. “Are you serious?” He gave Charlotte an unsettlingly serious examination, as if he were examining a lot of defective goods. “What did you think of this Miss DeVere?”
Charlotte started to stammer out “No,” but ended up saying, “I’m not sure.”
Dr. Answorth replied, “Miss DeVere is a highly eligible young woman with a distinguished bloodline. Marrying her would buy, pay your, sorry introduce you into polite society.”
“So does my fortune. I don’t have trouble mixing with the ton in London, especially when they need a loan. She may have a distinguished bloodline, but she’s poor. She’ll be lucky to attract a husband of her own station.”
Charlotte, highly annoyed with the turn the discussion was taking, interposed, “Mr. Oswith, please!”
Freddy thought for a moment, Charlotte was clearly a pretty woman and he had a suspicion that if he were on her good side, she would be pleasant company. He could almost imagine falling in love with her. At least if he could be sure that, unlike so many of the beauties he’d met, it was him and not his money that she loved. He made his final and best offer, “This is a new development. It merits careful consideration on both our parts. Tell you what. I was going to foreclose on you if you didn’t sell out. My offer of eleven hundred pounds for the house and demesne still stands. The interest and principle due on the mortgages is about five hundred. I’ll pay you six hundred cash and count the difference to the mortgage payment.”
“That’s my best offer. Can’t say it’s not fair. Otherwise I will just foreclose and take the lot.”
Mr. Bayliss added, “Remember what I told you about the Oswith’s and business.”
“What did you tell them, Mr. Bayliss?”
“Just that you play for keeps in business.”
“Damn right, how well you know me.”
Charlotte looked at Mr. Cruise. He nodded, “You won’t get a better offer for the house.” She looked at Freddy, then extended her hand to him. “You have a deal.”
Freddy was relieved, had Miss DeVere been difficult, he would have proceeded to foreclose on her. It might have been with reluctance, but it would have been the inevitable result. Taking her hand he replied, “Thank you.”
As they were leaving, Mr. Bayliss asked Freddy, “Would you really have given them cash for the whole thing? That’s very unlike you. Normally you’d just foreclose.”
“There is a minor matter of the locals good will. It would create a pile of difficulties for my guvnor and me later if I ‘did down’ the beloved daughter of the old lord when she was in trouble.”
“Ah. Sentiment. I thought it had no place in business.”
“It doesn’t, and don’t you forget that. But I’m not about to damage the property by acting in a daft manner.”
“If you say so. I still think you’re acting a bit daft. Don’t let her pretty face sway you. She’s a minx, not worth it.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t, and I’m well aware of Miss DeVere’s low opinion of me. Now you’ll arrange the contracts with Mr. Cruise?”
In their gig on the way home, Dr. and Mrs. Answorth asked their young guest what she intended to do now that she had sold the hall. “I’d love to get out of this village. See society.”
Dr. Answorth replied, “600 pounds won’t last long in London, nor in Bath. Better put it in the four percents.”
“Live on twenty-four pounds a year? I’d rather try my luck in the marriage mart and become a governess if I don’t make a hit. Besides the farm income will help.”
“Mr. Oswith was correct about the income, debt and principle, Miss Charlotte. You might be able to hold onto the land for a year, if you’re lucky.”
“I can always sell some land.”
“Not with Mr. Oswith holding the mortgages. He will have to be paid off first, for the full value of the debt.”
Charlotte was disconcerted. “Dr. Answorth, I had hoped when I sold the hall, I would be free of it. I’m still stuck here, glued in place still, aren’t I?”
There really was nothing to be said in reply to this.
Mrs. Answorth finally broke the silence and asked her husband, “Dr. Answorth, how is your gout?”
“Didn’t you want to go to Bath, for the waters?”
“Why don’t you arrange for your curate to take over for a month or two? Mr. Cartwright needs the practice if he’s to find preferment. We’ll take lodgings in Bath and you can take the waters. I’m sure Miss DeVere would be pleased to accompany us. That way we’d know someone in Bath.”
3. The Oswiths Take Possession.
Never ones to let the grass grow under their feet, Freddy’s sister, father and mother arrived within the week. The good people of the nearby village of Holt found this to be a mixed blessing. The bulk of the servants at the hall were immediately rehired, much to their relief, but the new family didn’t keep a proper distance like old Lord Staverton. Worse still, they had brash London manners and were prone to say what they meant and push hard for bargains when making a deal. Still, on the whole, and here both Freddy’s and his father George’s willingness to stand rounds in the pub as well as general cheerful attitude helped immeasurably, they were accepted.
One person who was not pleased was Miss DeVere. It would be a dreary and tedious few weeks before she and her friends the Answorths could depart for Bath. Early on, in what she could only describe as ‘the occupation’, she found that when Freddy said ‘house and contents’ he meant it.
The day after the sale, Mrs. Answorth and Charlotte drove the rectory gig to Staverton Hall in order to retrieve Charlotte’s dresses and the odd bits of jewelry she had left in her room. When they knocked on the hall door for entrance, Freddy himself answered it.
Seeing Charlotte’s shocked expression, he said, “Sorry, I haven’t gotten the hang of waiting for a footman to come and open the door for me. Always thought it dashed rude to leave our guests waiting while a servant ran up here to do something I could easily do myself. What can I do for you?”
“I’ve come to retrieve my wardrobe.”
“My gowns, I need them for Bath.”
“I’m sorry but they are part of the ‘contents’ of the house, are they not?”
“Surely you don’t want them?”
Freddy stood back and surveyed Charlotte with his measuring eye. She found it oddly disconcerting. “No, but you’re about m’sister Elizabeth’s size. She might want them.”
“You must be joking.” She looked Freddy directly in his face and did not see the smallest trace of a smile or humor, let alone any sign that he comprehended her dilemma. He shrugged, “No, if not Elizabeth, then the rag merchants. See what we can recover for them.”
“But my things, I left them here expecting to be able to take them.”
“I’m sorry but the contract for the sale clearly states ‘house and contents’. You should have read it before you signed it.”
Charlotte bit her tongue to hide her feelings. She turned on her heels and returned to the gig with Mrs. Answorth. As they left the grounds a torrent of her opinion came forth. It started with “That unreasonable, impertinent, unbearable man,” and ended several minutes later with a plaintive lament of “What am I going to do for gowns when we go to Bath?”
Freddy was a bit disconcerted himself. He was reasonably sure that Elizabeth would laugh at the idea of using this woman’s gowns. That comment was a feeble attempt a humor which went astray. After all Lizy had access to the best modistes in London and their father, while extremely prudent with money in business, gave her a more than adequate clothing allowance. On the other hand, that upstart little, the word beauty came to mind, only to be dismissed with the word minx, deserved the difficulty. Finally the clothes had to have some value in the second hand market. He went in search of his man Phelps to discuss the problem. Mayhaps a solution would present itself.
It was Elizabeth who solved the problem for him, by accident. The rest of the Oswith family arrived late in the afternoon. She debarked from the carriage, looked around, and pronounced the place met with her approval.
“Freddy! It’s perfect. There are cows and horses and everything is so fresh.”
“London has been getting a bit rank of late. All those people and all that coal smoke. I’ve felt so much cleaner since I’ve been looking for a house in the country.”
Elizabeth asked, “Do we have any horses? I could so do with a ride.”
“Henry! Can you help my sister?”
Henry came running. “Sir! Mr. Oswith, what?”
He paused, there were the two Mr. Oswiths, father and son.
“Henry,” Freddy asked, “Is there a horse Lizy can ride?”
“There’s the mare, but” Freddy’s father interrupted.
“But nothing, Get Lizy mounted, please.”
“Yes, what is it?”
“The mare isn’t like her horse in London. She’s a bit hard to handle and riding in the country isn’t like traipsing around Hyde park.”
Freddy generally respected Henry’s judgment, but his father didn’t.
“See that my daughter has her ride!”
Mounted sidesaddle on what had been Charlotte’s least favorite hunter, Elizabeth began to wonder if the horse was possibly a bit more than she could handle as it sidled along in an ill temper. A few moments later she knew it was much more than she could handle. It started acting up while they were still in the stable-yard. Once they left the yard the horse shot off at a fast canter. Lizy held on for all she could as the horse raced over the fields, jumped hedges and generally ran wildly out of control. The horse decided to jump one last fence, shied at the last minute and Elizabeth slid forward over the horse’s neck to the ground. She lay there, in the mud, stunned, while the horse ran off.
Charlotte was riding down a shaded country lane on her favorite mount. It was an old mare, a bit of a slug really, but she was even tempered and friendly. Charlotte had brought her along to the Answorths because she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her behind. Her beloved mare, her first horse, the one she learned to ride on, was more of a pet than a mount.
A dark hunter, bearing an empty sidesaddle crashed into the lane in front of her and sprinted away.
Charlotte thought out loud, “Somebody’s had an accident, I wonder who?” She traced the horse’s path back through the fields, and found a disheveled woman sitting in the mud and holding her head.
“Are you fine?”
The woman looked up at her and gave her a sheepish smile with her mud-streaked face. The bits of grass and weeds stuck to her hair only added to her comic appearance.
“Yes, just a bit shamed. I thought I knew how to ride well. Henry was right. The countryside isn’t like Hyde park.”
“Henry?” That name was familiar. Charlotte looked carefully at the woman. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“But you look familiar. You are one of the Oswith’s, aren’t you?”
The woman carefully stood up, straightened her skirts and brushed off some of the muck and grass. She held out her hand. “I’m Miss Elizabeth Oswith, you can call me Lizy if you like, everybody does.”
“I know your brother.”
“Freddy? How droll, isn’t he a riot? He can keep a straight face and tell the most outrageous whoppers.”
“I hadn’t noticed. By the way I’m Miss Charlotte DeVere.”
“Oh, you’re the woman he bought the hall from, aren’t you?”
Charlotte rather tersely replied, “Yes.” Meeting Freddy earlier in the week was enough of the Oswith family for her tastes. She was decidedly not enthusiastic about meeting any more of them.
“Freddy’s last letter talked about you. You’re much prettier and nicer than he described.”
“You must have made some sort of impression on him. His letters are usually full of business deals, interest rates, and boring things like that. You’d never think he could be any fun if you read them.”
“You think he can be fun?”
“I wouldn’t want to go up against him in a business deal, but yes, when he’s not cooking up some complicated financial scheme he’s a blast, a great gun.”
Charlotte was momentarily lost in thought. This was an aspect of that man’s character she hadn’t considered. No one could be totally rude, boorish and ill-mannered, though so far Mr. Oswith had done a thoroughly effective job of appearing that way. His sister seemed to be decent and well-mannered enough.
“Do you know which way is back to the hall? I should get back there soon or they will be worried about me.”
“It’s too far to walk, especially if you’ve been thrown from your horse.”
“I wasn’t thrown, just sort of slid off the front.”
“That’s what I mean by thrown from your horse. If you can walk to the far side of that field, there’s a lane.”
“Yes, I see it.”
“Wait there, and I’ll be along in the Vicar’s gig to take you home. We can chat on the way.”
Lizy smiled, “That would be top notch. I was hoping to make some friends quickly, and we could get started.”
Elizabeth cornered her brother in the morning. “Is it true that you wouldn’t let Char- Miss DeVere take her clothes from the hall?”
“Yes, they’re part of the contents of the house. If she’d wanted them, she only had to say so before we drew up the contract.”
“Freddy! That’s incredibly rude and vulgar.”
“Is it? I thought you might want them.”
“Me? Are you out of your mind? There isn’t a gown there that is even vaguely in fashion. As if I’d ever wear second hand clothing. I know mother and father did, once back when they were young and poor, but not any longer.”
“Then we’ll sell them to the rag merchants.”
“What do you think you’d get for them?”
“I don’t know, ten, at most twenty pounds. They probably have some value on the resale market.”
Liza reached into her reticle and pulled out a banknote. “Here’s twenty. They’re mine now.”
“I thought you didn’t want them.”
“I don’t, but I know someone who does.”
Freddy tried to return the note to his sister, “No, please not her.”
“Sorry, yes. Charlotte’s a sweet, well-mannered and gentle young lady. I like her and think we’ll soon be close friends.”
Freddy pushed the note back into Lizy’s hand. “Lizy, I’m not going to do business over this with you. It’s not as if these clothes are worth much. Take them to that woman, if you want, but please do not involve me in it.”
“Did you know there’s going to be a ball in Staverton, Thursday next week, before the Answorth’s go to Bath?”
“No. Should I?”
“If you’re going to be the new land owner, I would think so.”
“Did you plan on going?”
“Is Miss DeVere?”
“Probably, it’s to see off her friends the Answorths. I’d be very surprised if she’s not there.”
“We haven’t been invited. So I’m not sure we can.”
“I’ll bet we get invited.”
Freddy laughed, “Twenty pounds we don’t?”
“I never gamble, you know that.”
Lizy went in search of her maid, and eventually found her upstairs unpacking Miss Elizabeth’s wardrobe.
“I need to you help me pack Miss DeVere’s gowns and things.”
“But Miss Elizabeth, I should like to finish with your clothes.”
“They’re not going anywhere are they?”
“I have things ready that I can wear for the next few days, don’t I?”
“Then you can help me with hers first. That way we have space for mine.”
“Miss, I’d rather get these done.”
“Martha!”, Despite her cheerful and well-mannered surface, Elizabeth Oswith was fully capable of being just as demanding and iron-willed as any other member of her family. Martha knew that dangerous tone of voice and was well aware that implied an order rather than her usual pleasant request.
In what had been Miss DeVere’s room, as they started taking the dresses and gowns down from their hangers and carefully folding them into a traveling case, Elizabeth commented, “Martha, I’m not sure that Freddy wasn’t right to just sell these. They’re all so out of date and frumpy. I’d be ashamed to wear one as a masquerade costume, let alone to a ball.”
Martha agreed. Elizabeth continued, “But if Miss DeVere wants them, then she’d best get them.”
They were about half-way through the clothes when Freddy joined them for a few minutes. “I heard what you said about these clothes. You’re right, even a mere male like me can see that they’re so gauche as to be only suited for a dowd or a frump. It’s almost a sartorial solecism to be in the same room with them.”
“It’s a shame because Charlotte would look much nicer if she were well-dressed. She needs to catch a husband if she can.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
“Good. I hope that’s clear. But you’re right, she would look much better in a fashionable gown.” Freddy quietly pulled out an old and worn hundred pound note and slipped into a sleeve on one of the dresses lying on the top of the pile. It would look like it had been misplaced a while ago and was just now found. Lizy noticed. “Freddy, that’s so sweet.”
“No it’s not sweet. It’s a speculative investment. If she gets married, then maybe I can deal with a rational man about the farms. Failing that, it won’t be so evil when I foreclose on them. Not if she has somewhere else to live.”
“Freddy, it’s still sweet.”
“If you get the chance, make sure she’s decently clothed in Bath. I can give you another note if you need it. Please don’t tell her where the note came from.”
“She’d just send it back and I’d have to find another way to shift her.”
Once the clothes were packed, Lizy wrote a short note and had the village carrier take them to Miss DeVere.
The reason the invitation to the ball had not arrived was that Dr. Answorth was going to deliver it when he called on the Oswiths to welcome them to his parish. He and his groom pulled his gig up in front of the house, and were directed to the stable-yard. There was a knot of farmers sitting and discussing something. Most of the farmers stood up and touched their foreheads in salute when he climbed down from the gig. One man didn’t. While he was dressed much the same as most of his companions, he was older than most of them and far less sunburnt. Dr. Answorth walked to him and asked, “I’m looking for Mr. Oswith. Have you seen him?”
Dr. Answorth stumbled a second at this apparently unhelpful answer. “Where?”
“Unless you’re looking for my son Frederick, here. I’m George Oswith, and you’re?”
“I’m sorry. I’m Dr. James Answorth, the vicar.”
“I was wondering when we’d meet. I’d heard about you.” He turned to the farmers and suggested that they continue discussions later. “You’ve given me much to consider. I’d best entertain this gentleman.”
Joyfully pumping Dr. Answorth’s hand, Mr. Oswith asked, “What can I do for you? There’s some decent sherry in the hall, and I’m sure you’re thirsty.”
“I wouldn’t say no.”
Mr. Oswith led his guest into the house and sat him in the main parlor. He rang and when his butler arrived asked, “Bring us some sherry please, and if you would please, the sherry I brought from London.”
“The sherry from London?” The butler waited, hoping to have that part of the order rescinded.
“I suppose Lord Staverton’s was saving his blunt on his sherry. Awful stuff.”
“It was Mountain Malaga sherry. It was very fine.”
“Really?” He turned to his butler, who hadn’t left, “Why don’t you bring us a glass of both? That way we can see. Also can you see if Mrs. Oswith is free.”
While the butler was on his errand, Mr. Oswith asked, “So what brings you to the hall?”
“To welcome you to the parish, and to pass on this invitation to a ball at the parish hall next week.”
“A ball? Lizy will like that. When?”
“Good, Freddy will be back from London by then.”
“He’s in London?”
“Business. There were pressing issues that required his presence.”
“I was curious, is he intending to settle here?”
“Freddy, no. Me, yes.”
“Can I ask what your plans are?”
“Martha and I started poor and worked damned hard to make something of ourselves. Well, we’ve done it and raised two fine children on the way. Too many of my friends worked until the day they dropped and never did anything good with the money they raised. That’s avarice for you, money for money’s sake.”
“So are you planning to retire to the countryside?”
“Not quite. Freddy’s sharp so I’m letting him spread his wings in our London house. I’ll still keep an eye on things, of course. Meanwhile, thought we’d see what we can do in the country.”
“I don’t understand.”
His wife silently came in, and curtsied to the rector, “Vicar, so pleased to meet you.”
The vicar rose, somewhat belatedly, and bowed in return. “Mrs Oswith, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Martha,” Mr. Oswith continued, “I was just telling the Reverend about our plans.”
“We want to give some poor children a chance. Make life a little easier for them.”
“Was that what you were discussing with the farmers?”
“Not directly, I asked about the parish school, but mostly how their farms worked.”
“How did they make money, what banking did they do. The business of farming.”
“Nay, not at all. Most of their needs were very small, a new plow blade might be ten pounds. If you don’t have ten pounds when you need it then it might as well be a hundred or a thousand. Also I was wondering if some form of insurance would be useful.”
Mrs. Oswith beamed, “That’s my George, always thinking of how to make money work.”
“Thinking of organizing a pool or a farmer’s bank, so if the crops fail, there’s something for them. Wouldn’t take much capital to start and it could make their lives a great deal easier.”
Looking at the clock on the mantelpiece and realizing that he’d outstayed a social call, the vicar rose and started to make his excuses.
“Dr. Answorth, please stay and try the sherry. I’m no connoisseur and if the mountain wine is better I’d like to know why.”
Finally freed from the garrulous and tenacious Mr. Oswith, Dr. Answorth found his gig and headed back to the rectory. It was his opinion that the Oswith family, senior, was definitely best endured in small doses. At least the man could learn to appreciate the difference between that dreadful London plonk and Mountain Malaga.
Back at the rectory, Charlotte, as well, was finding the younger Oswith’s were best kept at a distance. As she and her maid unpacked the dresses, they came upon the 100 pound note Freddy had secreted. Immediately she knew what happened, or thought she did. There was simply no possible way her father would either have given her a ton or have forgotten about it if he had.
“That Elizabeth Oswith! Thinking she can buy my favor with a bribe. I’ll give her a piece of my mind when I see her next.”
Charlotte didn’t have long to wait for her chance. There was a loud knocking at the front door, which penetrated even to her upstairs room, and shortly afterwards a maid came up and asked, “Miss DeVere, Miss Oswith was here and wondering if you would like to converse with her.”
“Yes,” Charlotte fumed, “dearly.” She strode downstairs, banknote in hand, and confronted Miss Oswith.
“What is this!”
“It’s a banknote, a hundred pounds from the look of it. I wouldn’t wave it about like that.”
“That’s right. What was it doing in my dresses?”
“Didn’t you forget it in your dress and just find it?”
“I’ve never had this much money in my hands, my father would never have given it to me if he had it.”
“Oh,” Lizy smiled, “I’m sorry, that was the idea.”
“Freddy’s. He said you would look pretty if you were dressed in a fashionable gown, and that this might help.”
Charlotte paused, Elizabeth’s naivety about things was shocking. “Don’t you understand why I can’t accept this?”
“No, not at all. It’s not like it’s that much money. Please accept it as a gift.”
Charlotte was speechless with anger. Lizy, completely puzzled with her reaction, continued, “I’m deeply sorry if you’re offended. It was meant for the best. I thought you’d rather have the chance to pick out your own gown, than if I offered you one of mine.”
“One of your castoffs? I’d never.”
Miss Oswith sounded lonely, slightly shy and sad as she said,“I’d hoped we could be close friends, like sisters. I’ve never had a sister and always wanted one. You’d accept it from your sister, wouldn’t you?”
Charlotte noted the dismay on Elizabeth’s face. “Are you really that lonely?”
Lizy sniffed, “I know we’re vulgar and parvenus, encroaching mushrooms that stink of the shop. I’m not daft. In London I was only accepted socially because I am a rich heiress. The men at Bootles were making book on who I’d marry. Freddy had it a little better. He had some friends from school. Even then I think most of them tried to touch him for a loan when they were scrapping bottom. It only stopped when he made it clear that he didn’t loan money without security. I can’t fake it like Freddy can.”
“Here, I hoped I might just have some friends, normal friends.” She paused and sniffed, “I’m sorry if I bothered you.” She turned and started to walk to the front door. The footman called for “Miss Oswith’s carriage.” Soon after, the noise of the carriage crunching its way down the vicarage drive could be heard.
Charlotte was left behind, sitting in the parlor, unsure of what she should feel, and equally unsure of what she did feel. Anger at being ‘bribed’, but shame at not recognizing it as a genuine gesture of friendship. She said to the clock on the parlor mantelpiece, “I suppose this is what vicars are for.”