His Lucky Charm
Chapter 20: Settling Down
Copyright© 2012 by Argon
Berkshire, England, Spring 1866
Thornfield Abbey was a rather large property with some seven hundred acres of tillable land plus sizeable wooded areas. The old Abbey had been converted into a manor house under King James I, but in 1807 the last owner, the Hon. Rodney Wilberton, had built a new and roomy regency style manor house which had served as living quarters for his family. The old Abbey building had fallen into disuse and only the sturdy stone walls had saved it from dilapidation.
Jim and Rose had visited the property repeatedly over the winter and they had found the manor house to their liking. Through Lambert & Norton they were preparing to bid for it. After Wilberton's death, Thornfield Abbey had been on the market for two years already and due to a lack of demand the price was coming down. Landed estates were increasingly replaced by industrial investments as source of income.
It would be ideally suited for the Tremaynes, located just a half hour carriage ride away from Hamden Gardens and even less on horseback. Rose had already made up her mind in favour of it. She was wary of living in sooty London, with its myriad of chimneys and a high society that still scared her. Here in rural Berkshire things were easier for her. Her own standing, while not at the very top, would be akin to what she had experienced in Denver City and that suited her fine.
Jim also tended towards Thornfield Abbey. He was unsure, however, what to do with the old Abbey buildings, and thus he dutifully visited other estates if only to make it clear that he had other options.
Interestingly, the Marsden-Smith estate had come on the market as well. The exciting rumour that dominated the gossip du jour was that the "unspeakable Mrs. Brown and her bastard son" had got a taste of Lucius Marsden-Smith's patented medicine. He had indeed bequeathed his house and the lands to his natural son and heir. However, within a week, Mrs. Brown found out that the estate was so laden with debt as to leave her no option but to put the property on the market. Rumours had it that she would be lucky to settle the outstanding debt from the sale.
Jim and Rose put out cautious feelers to Priscilla Marsden-Smith asking her whether she wanted to put in a bid for the house. Priscilla's answer had left nothing in doubt. The manor house held nothing but bad memories for her and she would rather torch it than ever live in it again.
Tongues were wagging about Priscilla Marsden-Smith's antics, as they were called. Her refusal to wear black and her open defiance of the rules and customs made her the talk of all the tea parties. She had found temporary accommodations with Siobhan Pryce who not only seemed to tolerate the unwilling widow's brazen defiance of convention, but she defended her conduct publicly. Rose met her frequently, and while not entirely at ease with each other, the two women developed a tentative friendship.
Col. Burton had repeatedly called upon Raven at Hamden Gardens. He was currently bringing his affairs in order as he called it. That included his impending retirement and the remodelling of an inherited cottage near Abingdon. Burton, though healthy and able bodied, was over forty years of age. He was no man of great means and his weather beaten and scarred appearance was a decided deterrent to the spinsters and widows who were looking for husbands. Raven did not mind that in the least. She had been raised in a culture where scars defined a proven man and a warrior. Her dowry would be over £1,200. This was sufficient to add 300 to 400 acres to Burton's lands, enough to provide a decent rent income and to secure them a modest position in the rural society. Therefore, Col. Burton and Raven were progressing in their courtship and eyeing a May engagement.
If Burton was not visiting, Rose and Raven rode the country side. They enjoyed the time on horseback, the freedom to move about. Raven in particular basked in a rare feeling of acceptance. To most neighbours, Raven was an exciting addition to their quiet lives and they often invited her for teas just so they could hear the stories she could tell of the wild life of her youth. When they saw her out in the meadows they greeted her friendly. Raven felt safe for the first time in years. Not that there was no racial prejudice. Some people gave Raven derogatory names behind her back. However, the neighbours had no reason to fear Red Indian attacks, they had no interest in the land of the Indians, and accordingly they bore none of the hatred Raven had encountered on the American frontier.
With spring approaching, they were increasingly joined by Priscilla and Siobhan which usually led to having tea at Siobhan's house. Meeting regularly, Rose and Priscilla learned more about each other and Rose had to admit that she rather liked the tall and slender blonde woman. Once she overcame the inhibitions that were caused by years of social isolation, Priscilla proved to be a warm-hearted and animated companion.
By April Rose and Priscilla often rode out alone to explore the surrounding countryside. Rose defied convention by refusing to use the side-saddle and that left only Priscilla Marsden-Smith as a riding partner, a woman who herself was prone to break rules. Rose did not wear buckskins of course, but she had skirts altered to allow an astride seating in the saddle. They were basically pants with wide, flowing legs. When Rose was standing on the ground the legs flowed together looking like a skirt, but they parted in the middle for sitting astride the saddle.
Priscilla was comfortable in the side-saddle but she could understand Rose's thinking. She used the outings to question Rose about life in America, in particular about the western parts. She wanted to know everything in great detail and soon Rose recognised that her newfound friend was not asking those questions out of idle curiosity. One afternoon they were resting their horses sitting on a small hillock and Rose decided to ask.
"Cilla, I cannot but feel that your interest in America is more than idle."
Priscilla sighed. "I admit to being tempted to leave all this behind. Don't misunderstand me: you and Jim have been nothing but kind and friendly and so has Siobhan. Even Jim's family has been. Yet, almost everybody else seems to disapprove of me. I don't know whether I want to live the life of a social outcast. Can you imagine how they will treat me at Lady Lambert's next New Year's ball? Of course I'm only assuming that Lady Lambert will invite me." She shook her head and stared into the distance. "Yet, I'll be utterly damned if I pretend to mourn for Lucius! All my plans, all my future were ruined by him. He had to have me, yet when he had me, he did not even seem to care for me. I spent ten years, the supposedly best years of my life, with a man I hated and who regarded me as a mere possession, as a trophy. Ten years spent with a man who showed not a single endearing quality. Thinking of him I want to scream. I want to ride over to his grave and – forgive me – piss on it."
Rose raised her eyebrows at the unladylike outburst but she nodded in understanding. "Cilla, honestly: do you resent me? You know what I mean, don't you? Finally, you are free of that man. At the same time Jim returns to England. He understands the pressure you were under and he forgives you. Everything could fall into place for you weren't it for me."
Priscilla shook her head vehemently and her blonde tresses danced. "I could never resent you, Rose. You are the best person I have ever met. You opened your heart to me even though I tried to ridicule you. You stood, and stand by my side, in spite of your fear of disapproval. Oh yes, I know that you must hide something, something that would make you unacceptable for all these stuffy, bigoted, stupid biddies. You are afraid it will come out and yet you face them down in my support.
"Rose, I still love Jim. There is no way to deny that and I shall always see him as my lost love. However – and I beg you not to feel uncomfortable – I have grown to love you just as much. It is a deep love, like I would love a sister if I had one. With all the bad things that happened to Jim I am truly and honestly overjoyed that he found you. Can you believe me?"
Rose looked at her companion. "I can, and feeling your goodness increases my bad conscience. You are everything Jim could have wished for, and now he is married to 'that dubious American woman'. I love Jim with all my heart, but I cannot help but feel inadequate. When all is said and done, I am a woman whom he found in the wilderness of West Kansas and who has little to offer. I am an orphan and I had to work from childhood to earn my keep. My education was woefully haphazard."
Priscilla shook her head again. "Rose Tremayne, this does not change one iota of my esteem and love for you. To overcome such adversity and to become such a warm-hearted, loving person makes me proud to know you."
"Really?" Rose asked.
"Really! Does anybody know of your humble origins?"
Rose shook her head. "Some dear friends in Denver City know; Raven too. Lady Lambert, like you, suspects that I have a secret."
"Rose, this scares me," Priscilla admitted. "What if something leaks out? How can you believe me then that it wasn't I who told on you?"
"I know that I can trust you, Cilla. You are a good person, honest and caring."
Priscilla blushed deeply and she had to fight with tears. With brimming eyes she looked at Rose. "For all my life I have been looking for a friend such as you."
"Those horses are magnificent," Rose commented under her breath.
"Yes, and quite costly, too," Robert Tremayne answered. "Fortunately, Jim always took good care of his chargers."
They were watching the 13th Hussar Regiment from the stands of the parade ground along with almost a hundred spectators, mostly the officers' relatives. Jim's parents were there, as were Edward and Penelope with their children. Standing with Rose was Priscilla whose hands were clenching nervously. Several of the more senior officers who still remembered her, first as Jim's fiancé and then as Marsden-Smith's wife, had cast surprised looks at her, but Rose knew that Jim had explained her presence. So far she was treated with an indifference that probably suited her perfectly.
Of course, Rose's eyes were on Jim. He looked so different! The tight fitting black coat, the shining, high boots, and the black trousers with red stripes almost made a different man of him. For a brief moment Rose asked herself whether she could ever be comfortable with Jim as a Hussar. Thankfully, she had heard him curse the tight fitting uniform when he dressed this morning and his amused grin at seeing his mirror image had been comforting.
Now he was leading a troop past the stands. His rigid posture told her of his uneasiness and she realised that Jim felt like masquerading. The regimental commander, Colonel Payden, rode along the lines in a canter until he reached the centre of Jim's troop. Rose guessed him to be in his late fifties but he was a splendid figure on his jet black charger.
A trumpet sounded and the 13th Hussars presented their gleaming swords. Colonel Payden walked his horse over to where Jim was sitting astride his own stallion. Payden stood tall in his stirrups and his voice carried over the parade ground.
"Captain James Weston Tremayne, of the 13th Hussars, formerly the 13th Light Dragoons, in recognition of your supreme valour and exemplary conduct shown on the occasion of the Battle of Balaclava when in command of E Troop, you were awarded a brevet commission as Major."
He gently nudged his horse forward until he stood at Jim's side. He offered his hand and Jim shook it. Backing his horse until he stood opposite Jim, the Colonel smiled.
"My felicitations, Major! A pity you did not stay with the regiment." He smiled wryly. "I can see, however, how being the owner of a gold mine can have its appeal."
"Thank you, Sir," Jim answered. "While I have missed my comrades in arms, I cannot say that I regret the turns my life has taken."
"Quite so," Payden smiled.
He wheeled his horse and resumed his ride along the lines. There were three promotions in the ranks he had to announce, and then the regiment paraded once more before the stands before the ranks returned to the stables.
After the parade, the officers and their families and guests assembled under a pavilion where food was served. Jim had arranged and paid for this to celebrate his brevet rank. As hostess, Rose had to greet each of their guests and her head whirled with all the names she heard. Finally, another man approached who was wearing a different uniform. Seeing him Jim almost ran to meet him.
Of course, Rose knew immediately who this man was and she hurried to follow Jim. He held the newcomer's hands and shook them vigorously. Seeing Rose approach Jim smiled.
"Rose, darling, this is Riding Master Joseph Malone, of the 6th Dragoons. He is the man who saved my life. Mr. Malone, please meet my wife."
Malone could only be in his early thirties Rose guessed, but he looked older. He bowed to her making her blush.
"I am eternally grateful to you, Mr. Malone," she said sincerely.
Malone smiled. "Well, Madam, seeing how my horse had been shot, I was right grateful to sit behind the Captain, err, the Major, begging your pardon. We should both thank his horse for carrying us back to our lines."
"Yes, they awarded him the Victoria Cross for catching a ride back to the lines," Jim smiled.
The small gunmetal cross on Malone's chest caught Rose's attention. It was unpretentious but Rose knew already that it was the most coveted award. Malone blushed. Meanwhile Jim had given Edward a sign and he came over carrying a wooden box. Jim took it and opened it. In the box was a silver plated, brand new Army Colt revolver with an ivory handle and the inscription, To Lance Sergeant Malone in Deep Gratitude, Capt. James W. Tremayne. Malone's eyes opened wide.
"Sir! This is a magnificent weapon! Do you really want me to have it?"
"Well, after all this engraving I can hardly keep it," Jim joked.
Reverently Malone took the weapon and weighed it in his hand. "I'll need a permit to carry it as my sidearm, but I suppose I can get that. Thank you, Sir!"
"See? Now please have a seat with us."
"Beg your pardon, Sir. It's officers only at the table."
"It's my table, Malone. Have a seat please."
Blushing Malone sat at the table with the Tremaynes. Colonel Payden welcomed him.
"Yes, Major Tremayne is right. Have a seat, Malone! Another good man I had rather not lost. Would we'd have had an opening for you back then. They're treating you right at the 6th?"
"I'm perfectly fine, Sir." Malone managed to say, flustered at speaking socially with his former regimental commander.
"And you, Mrs. Marsden-Smith? Are you quite all right?" Payden asked jovially.
"I'm getting better, Colonel," Priscilla answered with an effort. "Fortunately I can rely on my friends."
"Bad business, with your husband, bad business," Payden shook his head. "If only he could have curbed his desires."
"I would he had, Colonel, for his own sake and mine."
Meanwhile, Samantha was basking in the attention that she was getting from the younger officers. She was a delectable sight to be sure and in the first bloom of womanhood. Being the adopted daughter of a rich man certainly added to her appeal. The seating order, however, did not lend itself to mingling, perhaps fortunately so.
For the next hour Jim was grilled relentlessly about his time in America. He had to describe the land, the time on the Oregon Trail, the encounters with the Indians, and of course the gold rush. He managed to include Col. Burton who was able to add his Canadian adventures. Unable to curb his curiosity, Col. Payden also asked Raven about her background. Without giving any specifics that might incriminate Rose and Jim, Raven told them about being widowed twice before accepting Jim Tremayne's offer to leave the American West and come to England.
Next, the fates of former officers Jim had known were rehashed but it soon became clear that the topics were exhausted and Col. Payden pulled his fob watch.
"It's been a delightful occasion, Tremayne! I hope to see more of you now that you have returned. I'm afraid though that I have to attend to some duties. Ladies, Gentlemen, if you will excuse me and my officers?"
They all stood. Bows and curtseys were exchanged, and before long Jim and his family and friends were left alone. Already the hired help disassembled the tables and the pavilion. The coaches arrived and the ladies climbed in, followed by Robert and Edward Tremayne. Jim and Colonel Burton rode their horses as it would seem inappropriate for a freshly promoted Major of the Hussars to ride a coach.