Authors: Peter McAra
Then she began to devour the books that lined his library's gloomy shelves. From fairytales she moved to stories of adventure â the voyages of discovery of Sir Francis Drake and his ilk. Then the history of war â the Medes and the Persians, the Crusades, the coming of William The Conqueror. The vicar encouraged her to take home the books she fancied, then return them the following Thursday. After a time, the village grapevine heard that poor Hannah Hodgkins disapproved of her foster-daughter's doings. Of what use was such learning to a poor village child? It might lead to her undoing, give her fanciful notions above her station. She might think herself too grand to marry an honest village lad.
Then the vicar's wife Hepzibah died after giving birth to her stillborn son. Her husband grieved sorely for a year. The enthusiasm he had manufactured for the care of his flock withered. His congregation began to fear for his sanity, watching him turn sere, like a tree losing its leaves in autumn. Then, as heads began to shake and fingers began to point, he announced his intention to leave for Botany Bay, a remote and primitive convict settlement half a world away. He told his flock God had called him to minister to the savages of that desert land.
âPoor Vicar,' Mother Turlington said as she took her daily constitutional in the marketplace. âHis heart is broken. I fancy he wants to remove himself far away from his unhappiness.'
In the weeks before he left, Martin found himself riding out of his way to pass by the gamekeeper's cottage where his natural daughter lived. Sometimes he saw her playing in the garden and marvelled at the way her shining hair caught the spring sunshine, as if she had just stood under a cascade of fine gold. Each time he watched her, a heavy weight bore down on his heart.
For her part, Eliza knew she would miss her weekly visits to the library of the kindly gentleman she knew as Vicar Townsend. She enjoyed his friendship, his witticisms whenever he halted his horse by her cottage and held conversation with her over the garden fence. Then, when Hannah took her to the village church on Sunday mornings, Eliza watched the man who had become her magical hero preaching wisdom and love from his high pulpit. And always, after service, he would take her hand, smile, and wish God's blessings on her.
Then he breathed a sad farewell to her, left for Southampton and took ship to Botany Bay. In his heart he would always hold the daughter he and Charlotte had conceived in love.
Eliza grew into a happy child with a loveable character and a face so arrestingly beautiful that village folk said she was an angel come to visit. One day, her foster-mother noticed four-year-old Eliza playing with a collection of pebbles on the tiled floor of the cottage kitchen. As Hannah watched, the child arranged them in rows as neatly as her little hands could manage.
âOne, two, fwee,' she counted, not knowing her mother was watching. Eliza had learned to count to ten when she was but two years old, and also to recognise the written numbers. As Hannah watched, Eliza continued to play with the pebbles.
âTwo-and-forty, fwee-and-forty,' the child continued, still oblivious. When she had arranged ten rows of ten pebbles in a rough square, she stopped and contemplated the lopsided pattern she had made. Then she mouthed the numbers again.
âEight-and-ninety, nine-and-ninety, ten-and-ninety.' Hannah realised that the child had recognised that there was a specialness about this symmetrical array of pebbles, though she could not know the word for a hundred. Eliza sat and counted the pebbles again. Then she moved herself to an adjacent side of the square and counted once more from this new position. Hannah watched in fascination until she must tear herself away. The dough was risen â she must build up the fire and set the loaf to bake. Then she must churn the cream before she took the pail and brought the cow in for the evening milking.
As Hannah stood in the scullery washing the pail before she sat down to milk, Eliza ran to her mother's side, hands so full of pebbles that she could barely hold them.
âMother, two fives are ten. And six fours are four-and-twenty.' Hannah hid her amazement.
âClever child. And how many is two four-and-twenties?
âEight-and-forty.' Hannah was dumbfounded.
âAnd six four-and-twenties?' she laughed.
âFour-and-forteenty.' Hannah trembled.
âWhen we have ten tens, my clever little one, we call that one hundred. So we say that four four-and-twenties is one hundred and four-and-forty. Now, what is eight four-and-twenties?'
âTwo hundred, then eight-and-eighty. Ask me a hard one, Mother.'
Eliza took to asking questions all day long.
âWhat does âprovocation' mean, Mother?
âWhat is a ton, and a league, and Parliament?'
She hungered for knowledge about the world around her.
âWhy does night come, Mother?'
âBecause God wants his creatures to rest.'
âWhy does he want them to rest?'
âBecause everything rests.'
âThe stream doesn't. I hear it whenever I wake in the dark. And cocks. I hear them crowing in the night.'
âThey must be different.'
âI'm sure I don't know, child.'
âHow does God make it dark?'
âHe pushes the sun away.'
âWhere does he push it to? It must be day there. And the creatures there wouldn't get their rest.'
After some months of Hannah's preoccupation with her amazing child, she forgot her grief. The good news travelled to the Great House, and Hannah was sought out by Cook.
âCome back to the kitchen, child. We miss you. There's none as can make a jugged hare like you.'
âBut I'm a married woman. I have a child to rear. I have to â '
âWhat if Sir John were to order you back? You know how he always liked your jugged hare. The place is dull without you, Hannah. The housekeeper would pay you well. She knows your worth.'
âWell, I must ask my Joseph.'
âI'll wager you'll find him willing.'
âHow do you know? I'd have thought â '
âI know these things, child. I sees him day in, day out. I talks to him as he waits in the kitchen. I've known him since afore you were born, remember.'
âAnd my little Eliza. She â '
âShe's welcome in my kitchen. She's a good child. It will exercise her mind. I hear tell as she's a clever one. She can sit by the fire and play with dolls. I'll put my hands on some lovely dolls.' Hannah smiled to herself. Eliza would more likely read a book from the viscount's library than play with dolls.
Hannah considered Cook's offer. As she recovered from her melancholy, she found herself missing the companionship of the women of the kitchen, the feeling of being close to the centre of village life. She thought often of the cavernous kitchen fireplaces with the smoke stains flaring upwards over the whitewashed brick facades, the piles of dead game thrown in a tiled corner waiting to be dressed, the junior kitchenmaid turning the spit with its burden of a side of beef, or a fat sucking pig with its golden skin scored, popping blisters of molten lard over the embers. She remembered the piles of earthy potatoes fresh dug and waiting peeling. In her memory she smelt the mounds of newly picked herbs, heard the bubbling pots, the flare and sputter of the fires.
Within a week of Joseph's agreeing with Cook's notion, and Hannah's surprise that he had done so, she took her old place in the kitchen. Four-year-old Eliza became the darling of the kitchenmaids as she sat in a corner of the kitchen and read whatever books could be found for her while her mother peeled, stirred, spiced, shredded and basted. The servants whose duties took them above stairs were wont to talk about the golden-haired mite who ruled the kitchen.
Over following weeks Eliza infiltrated the gardens, the courtyards, and on occasion, even the long oak-panelled corridors of the Great House. She made these voyages of discovery holding the hand of Mrs Hawkins, the widowed and childless housekeeper who, it was said, loved the child as if it were her own. Many times the viscount's children had strained to watch from their playroom window as the servants frolicked in the kitchen garden with the little maid.
One day not long before her fifth birthday, Hannah took Eliza to a sunny spot in the garden during a moment of leisure from her duties. Hannah had risen early and worked hard
for a long week. In moments, she fell asleep. Eliza took hold of her opportunity. She saw a gate in the garden wall, ran to it, pushed it. It opened and she strolled into a grand courtyard in which a fountain played and a black-and-white spotted dog slept on a clipped lawn.
âWho are you?' She heard a voice and turned. A young boy had addressed her.
âEliza Downing,' she said.
âAre you from the village?'
âNo, I'm from Heaven.' She had a mind to toy with the earnest boy who stood gaping at her. She'd been told of her heavenly origins by her mother every one of the hundreds of times she'd asked where she came from.
âHeaven!' the boy said. âAre you an angel?
âYes.' She'd been told more times than she could remember that she was indeed an angel.
âCan I touch your hair?'
âVery well. Everyone wants to touch my hair.' She pirouetted so that her ringlets swung out in a golden wheel which caught the sun. âDo you like it?'
âYes. Oh, yes.' The young boy touched the hair, examined a single ringlet as he held it in his palm.
âThank you,' he said as he let it go. Eliza smiled to herself. She could tell the boy liked her.
âWhat's your name?' she asked.
âI won't tell you.'
âI told you mine. So you should tell me yours. It's fair.'
âVery well. It's Harry. I'm five. I'll be six soon.
âOh. I'm almost five,' she said. âBut I'm very clever.' He looked at her in puzzlement. âWhat can you count to, then?'
âA million million, if I want to.'
âHow much is a million million?'
âLots and lots.'
âMore than all the stars?'
âHow much more?'
âMillions of times more.'
âOh. I can only count to forty,' he said. She hid her astonishment.
âCome play with me, Harry. Come into the garden.'
âI mustn't. That's the kitchen garden. We never go there.'
âBecause that's the servants' place.'
âIt's lovely there. It's sunny. Come and look.' She took his hand and dragged him through the gate, led him to where Hannah lay sleeping.
âThat's my mother,' she said.
âBut she's only a servant.'
âNo. She's my mother.'
âBut she's â '
The conversation woke Hannah. She sat up and yawned. Then her eyes lit on the two children.
âOh! Master Harry. Oh dear! Eliza! Come here! Master Harry, sir. You must go back to your garden at once. Quickly now. If your father should find you here â '
Harry headed for the gate at a trot. Just before he disappeared beyond the doorway, he turned for a last long look at Eliza.
âGoodbye, Angel,' he said.
As John De Havilland approached fifty, he married his second wife, the unlovely daughter of a banker he met while attending to business in London. When she died in childbirth, he could not say in his heart that he missed her company. He chose not to take another wife. Instead, he decided to concentrate on managing his herd of fine dairy cattle. He had loved farming since boyhood, had bred a formidable herd of pedigrees in the thirty years since he inherited the estate from his father. Indeed, there had been times when he thought he preferred the conformation of a well bred Jersey cow to that of a blushing debutante.
His second wife left him with two children. Louisa was aged two when her younger brother Harry was born. De Havilland quickly decided he was too old a dog to learn the new tricks of fatherhood. He became downright frightened of Louisa and Harry when they grew old enough to talk with him after dinner. He took to summoning their nanny immediately the table was cleared, and retiring to his study for a port to soothe the nerves overwrought by their boisterous chatter. As Louisa reached the age of eight, and Harry six, the viscount began to think of their future.
âBe damned,' he said over dinner to Samuel Hitchens, a landowner who lived a few miles away, and with whom he'd enjoyed hunting since they were young blades. âIf my children are to grow up half sociable, they need company their own age. But there's no child of respectable upbringing within a day's ride of my house.'
âYou do well to be concerned,' Hitchens said. âYou're a man who knows bloodstock. See it as a matter of breeding. If your children are seen as dull country clods, they will have to settle for the rejects of society when they seek a mate. Have you not noticed how a new bull with good bloodlines straightway seeks out the best looking cow in the field? Watch when he's led through the gate to meet his new herd. He may well ignore those with less in the way of conformation until he has served all the others.'
âMmm. Well, I plan to send Harry to Oxford when he is sixteen or so.'
âSixteen?' Hitchens laughed. âHe'll be a laughing stock. Those city bred boys will make sport of a country cousin. He'll be marked for life. As the twig is bent, John... He'll never acquire the social graces a young fellow needs â well, to win one of those delicious young debutantes disporting themselves during the Season. These days, a young man woos and wins by making ready conversation, flashing his wit, and talking of the latest extravaganza at the theatres. I tell you, if you send a young country boy to London to find himself a wife, he'll make a fool of himself. Then he'll come back to the country with his tail between his legs, and find consolation with someone not entirely suitable.'
De Havilland privately agreed. Hitchens had described his own life's history exactly. Now he saw that this was why both his wives had been plain, spineless, uninteresting creatures who gave him no companionship.