Denham Hall, 1849
“I’LL NEED MY NEW GOWN TOO,” Octavia said to the two maids packing her trunk. “And the cloak. It may get cold. Have either of you seen Father this morning?”
“I believe he’s in the morning room,” Mary said.
Octavia strode quickly out of her room and down the stairs. The warmth of late summer had just left and the house was starting to cool. The whole of the house was pleasant in summer, but as the halcyon days faded, the number of usable rooms dwindled along with the summer warmth. Julius and her father didn’t seem to mind, even as they were both crammed into the same parlor in the depths of winter. A trait she never understood in her brother and father—their insistence on staying in the country through the most bitter winter. London was infinitely more comfortable, and more amusing.
“Really, Julius, why don’t you come? You can see that horrid fiancée of yours.”
“Cressida is perfectly happy corresponding by letter,” he said and re-shook his newspaper as if it threatened to crumple on him.
“Caius would be happy to see you.”
“After staying in London for the whole summer, he’d be infinitely better off coming here. I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”
“You know perfectly well,” Octavia said dismissively and continued to the morning room, where her father still sat in his morning coat. “Well, I’ll be leaving soon.”
“So you said. Months ahead of the season. Are you perhaps so keen on finding a husband, you’re willing to leave early?”
“I told you I’m worried about Caius. Someone needs to keep an eye on him.”
“I suspect Eliza is doing a perfectly good job.”
It couldn’t be that good, because they still weren’t living together. It had all appeared to go in the right direction with their reconciliation, but they never seemed to reach that perfect union. She still had that awful house in Lambeth, and her business occupied her mind. It wasn’t something Eliza was prepared to give up just yet.
When queried, though, they both insisted they were perfectly happy. Then why weren’t they living together? It wasn’t right, and Octavia had sat here all summer worrying about it. Their reconciliation seemed to have lost traction and they’d just paused where they were—neither going forward nor back. Something had to be at the root of it.
“After such a long summer, it will be nice to see some people again. You should try it. It would improve your disposition, I’m sure.”
“Nothing would achieve that. Besides, I’m needed here.” It was what he always said, even as he got under their estate manager’s feet more than he helped. Why were the Hennington men so impossible, each one of them? Pig-headed, uncouth and grumpy.
She sighed. “Someone has to see things are going the way they need to. Every once in a while, people need help, a little nudge here and there. Good outcomes aren’t guaranteed.”
“Well, you go and save the world, darling. I’ll be right here when you get back.”
With an exasperated huff, she left him. “And what shall I say if I meet Lady Buckley?” Interest had flowed between her father and Lady Buckley for several years, but for some reason, the man refused to act on it.
“Why don’t you ask how her barley fared this year?”
Shaking her head, she rolled her eyes. “You would be much happier with a wife.”
“Wives are more trouble than they’re worth.”
Julius seemed to have been of the same disposition, until he’d started courting Cressida Forthill. Odious girl. Snobbery was at the crux of her personality, but Julius also invested a great deal into his snobbery, so it was probably what attracted him, and her substantial fortune. Not that theirs was anything to scoff at. At the heart of it, Octavia believed Julius cherished Cressida because he was wealthy enough to be acceptable to her.
It bored Octavia even thinking about the match her brother had chosen for herself. Caius had done much better, until everything had gone so wrong with those stupid false accusations. But it was all being put right, even if the pace was distressingly slow. Octavia simply had to go and ensure all was right. It had worried her endlessly all summer since she’d learned that Eliza wasn’t actually living in Caius’ house. What possible reason could there be?
But she would get to the bottom of it, and if there were fears to be alleviated, or disagreements to be soothed, she would do whatever was required. There was also the issue of that man who’d pursued Eliza. Lord Fortescue. He was still around, she’d learnt. Was that the basis of the problem? Was that man trying to pry himself in where he didn’t belong? That would be… unacceptable.
“Are you ready to leave?” Mr. Tennyson asked.
“Yes, I am,” she replied and waited while Tennyson retrieved her bonnet and umbrella, in case it was needed. It was still too warm for a jacket, especially in the confines of the carriage, so she should be comfortable enough. He returned promptly and she took the bonnet in hand rather than put it on. She’d only take it off in the carriage anyway.
Tennyson assisted her into the waiting carriage, where her trunk had already been loaded. The windows were down on both sides to encourage airflow during the journey. “And Tennyson,” she said. “Tell my brother he’s a bore.”
“Is that the porcine kind, or the socially less diverting kind?”
“The latter, in this case. Make sure Father gets his walks in. He can be too lazy for his own good.”
“I will, Miss Hennington.”
With a nod, Octavia sat back and the carriage took off. Denham Hall would be chaos without her. She wasn’t even sure they would manage a proper meal. Cook would serve them whatever she felt like and they wouldn’t complain. It was the best they could manage.
The familiar roads around the village gave way to the countryside beyond. The trees still had their full crowns, the merest hint of yellow starting to color the earliest varieties. Around her, harvested fields looked bare. A few were still being brought in. It was a nice time of year in the country, where the crops had been safely brought in without any disaster descending. Things were prepared for market or stored for winter. Animals and farmers alike had a rest. It was also the time when London returned to tolerable. Summers were too hot and too pungent, and not of a good kind.
She should have brought a book, but she hadn’t thought of it. Normally, there was too much to do to sit down and read. And when she arrived in London, there were too many people to see, even as many of her acquaintances hadn’t returned yet. Over the next month or so, they would all make their way to London, ahead of the season.
The roads were good, but at times, the carriage was slowed because farmers were moving their harvest around. There was nothing for it but to wait.
There was an eagerness to get back to the city after such a long sojourn at Denham Hall. As her brother and father were so rude to guests, they didn’t have as many callers as they should. Everyone was more comfortable if Octavia did the calling, but there were only so many times you could call on the same people before it became dull.
And it was important to ensure things proceeded with Caius and Eliza. Caius would be miserable if things fell apart again. He’d run away for seven years last time, and no one wanted a repeat of that. Eliza was curiously independent, and to some extent, she’d had to be. No one could have foreseen how successful she’d been at it; Eliza had embraced her setbacks and made a life that had suited her. It was also true that she loved Caius and always had. As to her forgiving him for abandoning her—well, perhaps that was at the core of the problem. Forgiveness wasn’t always easy when trust had been broken, even if all parties wanted it.
As for herself, she wasn’t one for forgiving once her trust had been broken. In fact, there had been times when she’d dismissed men for the merest infraction. This was something she’d admitted about herself. Often she’d been looking for an excuse why a man wasn’t good enough. Perhaps that was because in her heart, she’d known he wasn’t the right man. Also driven by the fact that she hadn’t met any ‘right’ men. They were all silly on some level, and she’d wanted a man she respected. Still wanted. She hadn’t given up.
The problem was that suitable men didn’t grow on trees, and she’d considered quite a few of them already. She was, however, in the enviable position of being a good match for anyone. If she paid attention to a man, he typically paid attention back. There were men of good standing, but finding someone she personally felt was suitable had proven surprisingly hard.
Everyone told her she had to lower her standards, had to accept some man with his glaring flaws that she knew would drive her up the wall over time. Why couldn’t people be reasonable? Especially men. It wasn’t difficult, but yet, so many men struggled to say the right thing when they were supposed to, and to keep their mouths shut when appropriate. How was it these men managed to fare in the world while being so… unobservant?
SWEAT RAN DOWN FINN’S back as he reaped proud barley stalks. Stroke after stroke, the almost mesmerizing sharp sound of the barley felling. Behind the line of reapers, women gathered the stalks into bundles while the midday sun beat down on them. Two good days and they would be done. He was exhausted—they all were.
A celebration was planned for the end. The harvest fest. Until then, there was nothing but work. Every pair of hands was needed, even his. They had to get the harvest in before the weather turned. A bad storm now and the year’s crop would be ruined. The estate could manage a bad harvest, but there were many who depended on a good year to keep them afloat.
Often, Finn didn’t mind physical work, but harvest time taxed his every strength. Still, it would be a good feeling when it was all brought in and safely stored. Even better when it was sold and delivered, and the funds delivered to his bank.
Stopping, he stretched his aching back and listened to the men around him. No one spoke, they just kept on working. The sooner it was done, the sooner they could rest. Some of the professionals hired in for the task were eager to get to their next job, working as many fields as they could through the harvest season. For himself, he recognized the luxury of only having to do one harvest.
They continued working for hours more, until it grew dark. Finally, they lay their scythes down and returned home.
Finn walked. He hadn’t wanted his horse to have to stand around and wait all day. Besides, it did him good to stretch out some of his overused muscles. His shoulders had no strength left, and his back was sore. It would be painful the next morning, as it had been for quite a few, but the soreness gave when the working started—eventually.
The formal gardens of the house sat lush with the late summer bloom. It was more formal than was fashionable. This he knew, but he didn’t care. His grandmother had designed this garden, and they had kept it diligently as she’d intended since—even as he’d never met the woman. Family was important, even more so now that he’d run out of them. The memories were precious, and he tried to honor their work as much as he could, even this unfashionable garden. It was still beautiful.
“Mr. Fuller?” he called as he entered the house.
“Yes, my lord,” the aged man replied, appearing in the doorway to the main hall. “Should I have a bath prepared?”
“Yes, good,” Finn said. His whole body was covered with dusk and bits of stalk, which itched when he cooled down. He could swim in the stream, but a nice soak in a warm bath was more soothing on his muscles than a brisk swim. “How are we doing with the preparations for the fest?”
“The butcher has agreed to prepare the spit for roasting.” It was always a popular option, the center of the party.
“Reverend Thompson, and his gang of madams, are organizing some of the activities.” Mr. Fuller had over the years had a falling out or two with the women of the village, and he alternatively called them the terrors of Lesser Wilkeston. In fact, even Reverend Thompson didn’t argue with them when they were set on something. As for himself, he’d always depended on charm when having to deal with them, and it worked well most of the time.
Going upstairs, he sat down heavily as the bath was filled. Steam rose as the boiled water was poured in. “I think I’m getting old,” Finn said as he rose and undressed, straining aching muscles.
Mr. Thompson harrumphed. “You don’t know what old is yet, my lord. One day you will, and you will rue the words you just uttered.”
Finn groaned as he stepped into the bath, the warmth shocking his body then radiating into his muscles. It felt as if he had no strength left. What he needed was to scrub the barley dust off his skin and hair, but all he managed was to sit there.
Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a wife to fuss over him at a time like this? The companionship of a wife was something he’d begun to crave a short while back. Prior, he’d felt he was too busy to deal with the demands, a determination brought on by some of his liaisons. His view that women were demanding and grasping had resulted after one particularly regrettable relationship, and after, he’d stayed clear of the whole topic. It hadn’t been helped by the unhappy marriages he’d observed elsewhere.
But age had mellowed him, and made him wiser. There were successful marriages, and even some of the men who lamented their burdens weren’t nearly as miserable as they professed. The happiest of marriages weren’t the ones giving themselves to dramatics, they were quiet and calm, their happiness hidden in small actions and considerations. It was just that they were drowned out by the dramatics.
Then one day, Eliza Hennington had walked in and demanded he treat her like she deserved to be treated. Quietly confident and unbending in her demand, he’d seen something in her he hadn’t seen in others. She’d drawn his interest as no one had before. When they’d met, she’d been his tenant for a warehouse he owned in London, and still was.
For a while, it seemed she’d been a good match for him, even as her reputation was being threatened. A disastrous situation she was handling with strength and dignity. But the husband who’d caused her so much grief had swept her away in the end. It had been disappointing.
For a while, he’d been angry with her for relenting to the man who’d caused her so much grief, that she was being loyal to a man who didn’t deserve it. He wouldn’t have been so forgiving. The man had threatened her livelihood after initially destroying her life based on false accusations. How could he respect someone who would do something like that to a woman as lovely as Eliza?
For all intents and purposes, Eliza had chosen to remain with her husband. Finn hadn’t entirely deserted her, and not just because she was his tenant, but in case this husband truly didn’t deserve the chance she was affording him. A leopard didn’t change his spots, in Finn’s experience, so he wasn’t convinced of this man’s intentions. Perhaps some other stupid reason would have the man balk and he’d run for the hills, yet again.
A future with Eliza depended on this man divorcing her. If he refused to do so, things would be very complicated. It wouldn’t be unheard of that a man set up family with an abandoned woman, but it would be deeply unfair to Eliza. A solution would have to be pursued, and by solution, it would entail this man, Lord Warwick, to agree to divorce her.
It would all be complicated, but Eliza had the gentle strength that would make the perfect wife, even if her delinquent husband didn’t see it. And at its core, Finn liked her—enough to endure such tribulations. The idea of a happy marriage was something worth fighting for when it was within reach.
Having recovered slightly, he urged his muscles to move, washed his arms, and poured bowlfuls of water over his head. It would be nice to have a wife—someone who commiserated with the hard work of a harvest. Maybe even gentle fingers kneading the muscles of his shoulders.
The desire was growing stronger, but not to the point where he would choose a woman he wasn’t sure would be a good match. No marriage was better than a bad one.
“For the dancing, should we do so in the ballroom or outside in the garden?” Mr. Fuller asked.
“I think it would be more comfortable in the garden. We can string lights. The formal ballroom feels too… formal. Then we can have everything in one space, rather than spread out.”
“Shall we dance around the roasting pig, then?” Mr. Fuller said tartly. The man had a habit of being acerbic in his old age. It depended on the weather, Finn knew. His bones hurt and it affected his humor. Except the weather was tolerable at the moment. Mr. Fuller was simply aging, and it was another link with his past and his family that he would eventually lose.
Truth was that he probably had to retire Mr. Fuller before the man suggested he should, perfectly happy to continue until he dropped dead if given the choice. It would be an injustice if he had no leisure in his older age, even if he didn’t appreciate it being forced on him. For now, Finn couldn’t bring himself to being without the closest thing to family he had. At some point, his desire would become unjust.
THE TOWNHOUSE HAD AN unloved feeling when Octavia arrived, as if the rooms had suffered with the lack of occupancy, and the assault of the summer sun. They weren’t uncared for as such, as the staff kept them in perfect tidiness.
“Has there been any news of my brother?” she asked Mrs. Monty, who’d come ahead to revive the townhouse.
“No, I believe he is still at his estate.”
“Well, how long is he going to linger there?” A general question rather than one expecting an answer. “He must have been away for months, while Eliza has stayed in town. It’s not the time to be careless.” Only a foolish person wouldn’t realize that the staff knew exactly what was going on with the family members, and they had kept as abreast of the Caius and Eliza saga as anyone else.
Caius had his own townhouse now, having inherited his uncle's estate and title. Before Julius, which was a sore point for her oldest brother.
Few people might be in town yet, but Eliza was here. Octavia decided to call on her that evening. It was unfortunate that Caius hadn’t convinced her to go with him, but she could well imagine him determining it wouldn’t be an ideal time as he was busy with the harvest. Caius was silly that way. But so was Eliza, because she was supposed to give the business over to that business partner of hers, but it hadn't fully eventuated. Eliza was still very much involved in her company.
Sitting down on the settee, Octavia sighed. It was nice to be back in London. She loved the hustle and bustle of the city, the parties, the balls, the afternoon calling. At this point, she hadn’t decided what man she would take a liking to this year, but it so happened that there was one man she veered her interest towards. Unfortunately, they had disappointed in the past, and she was starting to fear that men disappointed as a general rule. Surely there had to be some that were good. Men got in their own way too much.
The garden was starting to fade outside the window. No one was here to admire it throughout summer, which was a shame. It should be replanted in autumn with spring plants. Her father wasn’t much for gardening, so it had languished in the state designed by whoever had put it in. As for herself, she had better things to do than redesign a garden.
“Would you like some tea?” Mrs. Monty asked, having returned from directing the footmen carrying her trunk.
“Yes, some tea would be nice.” A bit of rest after the journey would revive her. The clock on the mantle showed it was three in the afternoon. Maybe instead of waiting until evening, she would go catch Eliza at that warehouse of hers.
When it came time to leave, she chose to hire a carriage rather than use her horses that were recovering from their journey. They deserved their rest, so she had one of the footmen procure a ride for her. It was a short journey, so the discomfort wasn’t unbearable.
A drab, black cab stood waiting as she emerged from the house, and she smiled quickly to the driver as she got in. The footman gave instructions on where to deliver her, and they set off. Although it didn’t please her to feel this way, she did feel more conscious of her safety as she crossed the Thames to Lambeth. Even as she understood why Eliza had set up her business here, she didn’t quite understand why she insisted on staying.
The streets were a jumble of activity and it took some time to get through, but they finally reached Eliza’s warehouse and Octavia said goodbye to the hack. A man met her as she walked in, and no doubt he wondered if she was lost.
“Is Mrs. Hennington here?” Octavia asked. “Miss Hennington calling.”
The man looked shocked for a moment, as if he didn’t know what to do. “She’s in her office, I believe.” Then there was an awkward moment when both were in each other’s way, and neither could easily resolve it.
“And where would that be?”
“Sorry, upstairs.” He went to point, but changed his mind. “Follow me.”
Pallets of materials sat in rows. Booklets mostly. There were also chalkboards and books. The warehouse itself was a bit dusty and Octavia sneezed. The upstairs had some kind of printing contraption next to a row of large windows. The office was enclosed in the corner of the space, and she saw Eliza and another woman inside, leaning over the desk.
Eliza looked up and saw her, and for a moment, Octavia wondered if that was a frown on her face before it fleeted. Eliza came to the door. “Miss Hennington. This is a surprise.”
The office was less dusty and Octavia took it in, along with the dark-haired woman. “So this is where you keep yourself. I hope the children of the country appreciate your efforts.” On one of the walls, there were drawings made by children. Whose, she had no idea.
“We believe so. I’m not sure you’ve met Mrs. Broadman, my partner.”
The dark-haired woman stepped forward to shake her hand, which was a bit bold for standard etiquette. But this woman was not ruled to politeness and etiquette. She was something else entirely, and Octavia was a little curious. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. Enchanted,” Octavia said with a nod while she shook her hand. “I’ve just arrived back in London and thought I’d come see how you are. Caius is still at Bickerley, I believe.”
“Yes, dealing with the harvest.”
Mrs. Broadman gathered up a bundle of papers. “I’ll leave you to reacquaint,” the woman said and smiled as she left the room. It was curious how loyal Eliza was to that woman. They seemed to be close friends. Unlike many, Octavia didn’t have a best friend as such, two closer friends in Rose and Annabelle, but they weren’t as close as some, and less so as they’d both married. She had lots of friends and even more acquaintances, but not one she knew as intimately as one would a best friend.
“I didn’t want to be out and about too late, so I thought I’d come see you here. I suppose there isn’t a cafe nearby?”
“There’s a pub not far away,” Eliza said with a note of uncertainty. “Or we could go to my house. It isn’t far.”
“I’m sure we can get some tea here,” Octavia said, looking around. “It’s been a long journey.”
“You’ve just returned?”
“I’ll organize some tea,” Eliza said and walked out of the room. She returned within a minute. “Please sit,” she said, indicating over to the window where two chairs stood. Then she moved and carried over a small table and placed it between the chairs. It would serve. Octavia sat down. She could see down onto the street from her position.
“It’s a shame you couldn’t join Caius in Bickerley for the harvest season,” Octavia said.
“Caius said he’d be busy the entire time, and we have a big order to get out the door. Schools start very soon, so we have a great many orders to process.”
“Have you been to Bickerley?”
“Yes, I went a few months back.” Well, that was something, at least.
“It’s a handsome house. I always thought so. I haven’t visited in years. Our uncle was meticulous in how he kept things, but you know how the elderly are. Things slip. Denham would be a mess if it wasn’t for me. Father has no interest at all. I do wish he’d marry, but he shows remarkably little interest.”
“Julius seems to take after him,” Eliza said. So her and Caius were not close enough that they discussed Julius’ relationship.
“He’s involved with a woman at the moment. I think he intends to marry her.”
“Oh, I had no idea.” Was that a sign that they weren’t as close as they professed? “Is she a good choice for him?”
“Terrible, but you know Julius, you can’t tell him anything. She’s of the right pedigree, so he’s content.”
A look of concern crossed Eliza’s features. It really was as if every emotion was written on her face. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Julius will get the marriage he deserves,” Octavia said dismissively. As he utterly refused to listen, Octavia had stopped being concerned about his choices. They were his choices to make, and if he wished to spend his life with someone like Cressida, then that was his choice. Maybe they got on perfectly together. “One doesn’t always understand the things that make others happy.”
Astounding as it was, people weren’t the same. Not everyone saw things the way she saw them, despite the perfect logic. But neither of her brothers were logical and reasonable when it came to their women. That much she’d learnt in her time. Eliza was a good choice for Caius. He’d chosen well, but he’d been too emotionally invested to see the forest for the trees when the storm had come, and he’d suffered dearly for it. So had Eliza. Except she had turned her misfortune into a thriving business.
“I take it you enjoy this,” she said. “The cut and thrust of business.”
“I do,” Eliza said. “It’s like a child. Something you create and nurture, then watch grow.”
More importantly, would there be real children to nurture? Were they… trying? Surely they had reconciled to that point. It wasn’t something one could ask.
“Well, I do hope you allow yourself some time for leisure,” Octavia said. “You are the only sister I have, and I hope you’ll spend some time with me. And even if Julius marries this woman, you will still be the only sister I have.”
Eliza chuckled. “I’m pleased you see me that way.”
“Of course. So please come to supper one evening.”
“As none of the men are here to see to us, we will have to do so for ourselves.”
One of the mistakes Caius was surely making was squirreling her away in his townhouse, while what she really needed was to be drawn into society again. No doubt it was one of Eliza’s fears, and how could she embrace being Lady Warwick if that continued? No, she had to be reintroduced, so she would learn that there was nothing there to fear. And there would be nothing to fear—Octavia would see to it, and God help anyone who tried to reject her.
“We should definitely plan an evening,” Octavia said with a smile.
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© 2020 Camille Oster.