Authors: Peter McAra
âI want you too. More than man ever wanted anything on this earth. And I say no.'
âBut â '
âEliza. You know that I cannotâ¦ruin you. Ruin the rest of your life.' He drew his body away, kissed her. His voice came in a gravelled, halting whisper. âWould that we could be as Nausicaa and Ullyses. We cannot. I must refuse you because I love you. Can you not see that?'
In the depths of her soul, she could. What man would have said such words? She knew he wanted her. Every cell of his body shouted so. And yet he denied himself. His love must be greater than any other in the history of the world. Her sobbing quietened. As she lay, she schooled herself to breathe slowly, quietly. Slowly her lust for him wafted down like a thistledown descending to earthâ¦
A sudden close-by rustling of dead leaves shocked her.
âThere you are!' Louisa burst from the tree-covered path. âThe two of you! Naked! I will tell Father. This very minute!' She turned and ran. Neither spoke as they dressed. Silent with shock, they returned to the Great House.
Abed in her cottage that night, Eliza stretched and moaned. Sleep would not come. But for the rest of her life, she would take comfort from her memories of that afternoon. Harry had proved his love by the greatest sacrifice a man could make.
That evening, the viscount called his son to his study after dinner. Harry knew that the taciturn man would have devised some way to put an end to his son's joyful years with Eliza.
âMr Harcourt tells me you do well at your studies, Harry.' He cleared his throat, eased into the spreading leather armchair where he lately spent most of the hours of the day. All his life Harry had known that when his father did that, he was about to make a weighty pronouncement.
âThank you, sir.'
âTell me, do you enjoy your studies, boy?'
âI have a mind to send you to Oxford forthwith. The term starts soon. I think you are old enough, and studious enough.'
âBut, sir, I like it here. Mr Harcourt is an excellent tutor, and I â '
âMy son, you will learn things at Oxford which Mr Harcourt could never teach you.' Harry struggled to escape the blow he saw descending; a blow which would smash his burgeoning happiness into dust.
âWhat will happen to Eliza?' he managed to say as he winced with the hurt of the blow.
âShe has served her purpose.'
âButâ¦she helped me in my learning. Very much. I've â '
âMy point exactly. She has challenged you in your studies. Indeed, so much so that you're ready for Oxford a year or two before I expected.
âBut Louisa? She needs â '
âLouisa says the girl cheats at chess. Louisa can never win against her. I've told Mrs Hawkins not to send her to tomorrow morning's lessons.'
âBut Father. Elizaâ¦ Iâ¦ She's my friend. We've spent a goodly portion of our lives together. She's like a sister.'
âShe is not your sister, boy. She is a village child, born of village stock. The village people are chattels, boy. They exist to serve us. They are like cattle, if rather less useful.'
âBut Father, Mr Harcourt says â '
âEnough!' Harry saw the purple rising in his father's neck. âDamn Harcourt! It's high time you went to Oxford.' John De Havilland took a long breath. âDo not question me, boy. I am your father. I've instructed the servants to pack your bags. Jem will drive you in the coach. He will commence the journey with you tomorrow morning.' He paused. Harry sensed his father might be bracing himself to leap some intimidating hurdle. Now the older man coughed.
âDid you roger the girl?'
âCertainly not, Father.'
âDon't bother to invent fairytales, my son. Tell me why you spent long summer afternoons lying naked beside a comely young woman, old enough for a dalliance. And did not roger her.'
âIâ¦like Eliza.' It would not do to blurt out the truth.
âHow many times have I told you?' The viscount pursed his lips. âYou must keep your distance from the working class.' He looked across at the tall, broad-shouldered young man,
took in the trademark swathe of dark hair falling across his brow. John De Havilland knew that absence makes the heart grow fonder. At Oxford, his son would likely lie awake at night thinking of home and, more likely, of the wench. For a moment, he recalled the wayward thoughts of his own youth, his illicit moments with a saucy chambermaid called Jemima. He'd been sad for a night or two when he learned she'd been sent away because she was with child. For a moment, he wondered what might have become of that child. Then he shrugged, turned to the son who stood before him, expectant.
âSurely you understand by now that the peasantry is different from the nobility, Harry?' he said. âWhy, I sometimes suspect that peasants are not real human beings. Does not the Bible tell us they are fit only to be hewers of wood and drawers of water?' Harry drew a long breath, unsure of the biblical validity of his father's quotation. Whatever, he must not disclose that over past years, his feelings for Eliza had grown like a vigorous vine, smothering his mind with love for her.
âHave you rogered the girl?' The viscount repeated.
âNo, sir. I have not,' Harry answered, wishing his father would stop using the word.
âI came to like Eliza very much, father. Her intellect is truly astonishing. She â '
âNever mind her intellect, son. I asked you about her body.'
âWe have been the best of friends since I was seven years old.'
âWell then, boy,' the viscount asked his son testily. âWhy do you not wish to roger her?'
Harry would tell his father the plain truth. âIâ¦have wanted to, sir. Often. But â '
Sir John coughed. Harry dragged his straying attention back to the present, to the grave, unsmiling man opposite. In the latter years of his schooling, Harry had read in the classics that a special sacredness, an overpowering tenderness, magically sweetened the act of generation between a man and a woman who loved each other. In his dreams, he'd allowed himself to imagine that sweet lust many times, knowing all the while that his feelings for Eliza were so much more than the animal heat triggered by the thought of her naked body.
âBut what?' Was that a suppressed chuckle in his father's voice? âYou must tell me. Why haven't you rogered the wench?'
âI could neverâ¦hurt an innocent maid.' Harry's voice carried the ring of truth.
âHurt? I'll wager she hungers for it, boy. Peasant wenches are like that. Like cows taunting the bull. I've seen them a hundred times â at the inn, in the fields, dancing at the fair, stealing behind the hay rick on a warm evening at harvest time.' He looked into his son's eyes, saw that he was not convinced. âIf you don't, some village lad will do it soon enough, I'll warrant.'
âIf a young maid shouldâ¦get with child, father, it would be the ruin of her. I could never â '
âI see,' the viscount said. âSo it's love, is it?'
Harry must not tell his father of the heady sensations that surged through him whenever he saw Eliza, or imagined her ravishing body. But he must confront his own feelings before he answered; must be honest with himself as well as with his father.
My world is empty without her. All through the long nights alone in my bed, I dream of her. I do love her.
âI respect Eliza, father.' He paused. âI could never wish her harm.'
âVery well, my son. I will try to understand.' The viscount sighed, leaned back in his chair. âYou are a man now. Come to a man's estate, as the saying goes. But now I say that word, it reminds me that I have sad tidings for you.'
He watched as his son digested the import of those words. Then he stood, eased his aching limbs from his armchair, reached for the brandy decanter and the two glasses that stood on a table beside his desk. He poured a generous nip into one glass, a finger into the other. Then he drained the larger nip, refilled his glass, and slid the other towards his son.
âYou will recall that some few years back, I sold our herd of Jersey cattle to our neighbour Ernest Thurber, and replaced them with sheep?'
âYes sir. You said at the time you planned to grow wool for the new spinning mills being built all over the country.'
âIndeed I did. My advisors reckoned the prices fetched by fine wool would give us a handsome return. With the coming of the spinning mills, the world developed an enormous hunger for woollen cloth. Now the mills of Britain are paying a fortune for wool. I planned to garner a little of that fortune for you and your sister.' He took another sip of brandy. âNow to the sad tidings. You've heard of Botany Bay?'
âYes, father. Is it not the place to which convicts are transported?' He had learned of the discovery of the great empty southern land of
Terra Australis Incognita
in Mr Harcourt's schoolroom. Botany Bay was the faraway land's main port. Soon after its discovery, the British government had chosen to use it as a cesspit, a place to dispose of the blighted souls spilling from Britain's overfull prisons.
âIndeed.' the viscount sighed. âLately, flocks of fine-woolled merino sheep were sent to Botany Bay from Spain. It seems they thrive in that climate, and the enterprising landowners, aided by plentiful supplies of convicts, have expanded their flocks to meet the booming market for their fine wool. Which means that the inferior stuff we scrape from the backs of our poor sheep sells for a price which does not even cover the cost of shearing and shipping. You may not have realised that I sold my herd of Jersey cows for a song, then borrowed a fortune to pay for the sheep. At the time, it seemed every other landowner in Britain had elected to follow the same plan. So the price for sheep rocketed and the price for cattle crashed.' He filled his glass again, took a generous mouthful.
âWhich means that the estate you will inherit is on the verge of bankruptcy. Without money to appease those vultures of bankers, you will be left with nought but an enormous debt, a debt which grows daily as the interest accrues. More likely, they will force the sale of the estate, and you will become landless.'
âBut Father, is not our land entailed against just such a happening?'
âI must admit I thought so. But those evil bankers have beaten me. You will recall your elder half-sister Hepzibah, child of my first wife Isabella. Poor Isabella died giving birth to Hepzibah, God bless her. Then when Hepzibah came of age it was said by her aunts, who had undertaken to find a match for her, that she was ratherâ¦plain. They suggested I offer a portion of my estate to any young man who would wed her. I did so willingly. Hepzibah had expressed deep sadness at the prospect of becoming an old maid.
âYou will know that Hebzibah married the village parson, but alas, she also died in childbirth soon afterwards, along with the infant. Now those cursed bankers have found clever lawyers who claim that the entail is become void because of my naÃ¯ve act of offering a portion
to her suitors. Of altering the words on the document to allow that dispensation. It seems the old entail was rendered obsolete, and its replacement not perfectly constructed. Some pernickety word out of place. Some punctuation mark wrongly disposed.' He took a long sip from his glass.
âNow the estate is mortgaged to the hilt. My agent says the bankers have retained the best lawyers in England. I cannot fight them. I no longer have the means nor the spirit, Harry.' He slumped in his chair.
Now Harry saw behind the surly depths of his father's moods over the past twelve months, the reason he had taken to the brandy bottle. On many a night lately, Harry had tiptoed into the library to find his father lying snoring drunk across his desk, the empty decanter beside him.
Then the stables. Now he understood why the younger, more valuable horseflesh had been sold, the old lame nags pressed into service. The same might be said of the servants, come to think of it. Jem Smith, the young gamekeeper, had lately left, along with Louisa's pianoforte tutor. Then the woman who had groomed Louisa's hair and taught her the art of dressing and comportment for her upcoming visits to the London Season had been suspended. Even the estate's extensive gardens, pride of the estate for centuries, showed signs of neglect.
He remembered the many afternoons Eliza and he had walked those gardens, hand in hand if they were out of sight of the Great House, and talked of their love. He had even promised, in his innocence, that he would extend them when he became master of the estate, especially to please her. She had laughed, said that she was glad he loved gardens, and yes, she would happily take his hand as they walked through his new creations.
Some of the viscount's former servants had undoubtedly decamped to the estate of De Havilland's portly neighbour, Ernest Thurber. The wily Thurber had resisted the temptation to join the masses who'd planned to grow wool. Instead, he'd bought his neighbour's Jersey cattle to graze on the estate he'd acquired with his earnings from the spinning mills. Then he sold tons of salt beef, cheese and butter to the military at extortionate prices as the wars ground on.
âBut Father, what has this to do with Eliza Downing?' The moment the words fell out, Harry knew the answer. It was not long in coming from his father's now slurring lips.
âYou must marry. Marry a woman of substance. And soon.'
âYou meanâ¦Agatha Thurber?' Harry said. He knew that everyone in the village had seen the match coming since the two participants were babies.
âYes. Indeed, Ernest Thurber has spoken for years of the desirability of such a match. You will not find Agatha hard to please. Quite the opposite, I'll warrant.'
âBut sir, Agatha isâ¦' He must not demean his shy, downcast neighbour in front of his father. âShe'sâ¦dull. No sensible man will wed her. She's been to a London Season or two by now, and always come home without prospects.'