When Esther and Kay were girls, their family estates ran side by side. Esther’s family had no time for Kay’s father, even though he was a viscount. Esther often listened to Kay talk about her family and she would cry with her when Kay cried. Kay’s father had violent arguments with her mother and often beat her. Esther’s parents mostly ignored her. They were more interested in their older daughters, of at least her mother was.
Although Kay’s childhood home was luxurious and filled with servants, she was happy to marry John Dunphy and escape into the safety of the shabby Dunphy home. Esther had escaped from her home in a different way.
Kay’s brother, Peter, had also been beaten by his father. At sixteen he=d run off with the daughter of the local pub keeper. Her father seemed glad he was gone: he’d demeaned himself by choosing a tavern keeper’s daughter and the viscount announced he was satisfied to have his own brother or his nephew become viscount after him.
Kay had always hated their visits. Her cousin, Robert, sought her out to tease here and he found ways to hurt her. Once they’d both turned sixteen, he’d begun catching her in corners, trying to kiss her, rubbing up against her. It was then she’d met John. She wondered if she would have married John even if she hadn’t loved him, so desperate she was to leave Robert and her father’s house. By then, her father was drinking heavily and all avoided him if they could. Except his brother and nephew.
Esther’s parents were simply indifferent to her. There had been no fights or discord in her home. Instead there had been her parents= long absences in London and at house parties all over England when Esther had been cared for and petted by the housekeeper, Mrs. Bender and by her nanny, Jessom. She had received love and care from them and her memories were of warmth and comfort. Esther always banished thoughts of her parents and sisters and the feelings of loneliness that came with those memories.
At the age of sixteen, she’d married Jacob Beryll and moved to Shaftesbury where Jacob set up a shop to supply sundries to housewives. At his death, she found she had just enough money from selling the shop to provide a small income. Jacob=s debts took most of the money from the sale.
Alma had also lived in Shaftesbury. She was the daughter of good county stock but her parents had died leaving Alma and her sister, Amelia, with few assets. They’d realized some money at the sale of their house and belongings and had moved into rooms in Shaftesbury. Alma tried to find work so they wouldn’t have to live off their small capital. No one wanted her: her educated accent kept her from common work and she had no references to enable her to become a governess or companion. At a solicitor’s office where she had hoped to find employment as a charwoman, one of the solicitors saw her and offered her a place as his mistress.
At first horrified, she soon realized she had no choice and set about drawing up a contract so that her sister would get an education and a chance at a decent marriage. The solicitor, Josiah Greene, was enormously amused and agreed. Alma was placed in comfortable apartments on the other side of town from Greene’s home and wife. Amelia was placed in a girls= boarding school in Wells and Alma began to distance herself from her sister.
When Amelia was safely married to the third son of a small but comfortable county family, it was as though something gave way in Alma and she fell sick. She was ill for some time. Mr. Greene saw that she was properly cared for but began to search for her replacement. The illness robbed her of her looks for a time and she didn=t regain her fine figure for quite awhile.
It was during this period that Esther’s husband died and Esther decided she needed two things: to move away from Shaftesbury and Jacob’s family and to find a companion. She had met Alma before she became Greene’s mistress and knew she needed a home. Alma was anxious and worried over Esther’s reputation if people were to know of Alma’s past. Esther assured her she had no reputation to be concerned over. Alma joined her and they became fast friends. They enjoyed each other’s company even if they must pinch pennies. Alma had money and jewelry given to her by Greene. They decided to save all of that for a rainy day, a very rainy day. So they moved to London where no one knew either one and settled in together, two widows alone.
As Esther played with Kay’s children in the nursery, she kept going back to the conversation she’d had with Ailesworth the afternoon before as they returned to Elmscourt together after the hunt. It had been so invigorating,to ride ventre a terre over the hard ground, something she hadn’t done since she was a girl. It had been very pleasant also to ride with Ailesworth and talk together in a relaxed fashion.
For some reason, they’d talked of their childhoods, that is, that part that she would reveal to him. He’d had a decent childhood, he’d admitted, although part of the time he’d shared a household with a bastard half-brother. That had shocked Esther.
Ailesworth explained that Charles had appeared in their household a year after Ailesworth’s mother’s death. “Charles isn’t a bad sort, but the Earl keeps him as a puppy dog and he hasn’t any duties or work to do. He should have been apprenticed to a solicitor.”
Esther asked him quietly, “Did you have any happy years?”
He mused as he rode. Did he have a happy childhood before his mother died? He realized he did. All those years were sweet and seamless in their happiness. As long as he avoided his father, he had been happy, and he became very good at avoiding his father. It was only in later years that his father seemed to be haranguing him endlessly about his faults while Charles appeared to be always about, smirking at him.
“Yes, Mrs. Beryll, yes, I did have happy years. What about you?” and he turned to her, his golden eyes on her face.
She knew her childhood had always had two parts to it: the time with her family when she felt excluded and lonely, and the time they were away. She thought only of the times they were gone and she was happy and free. She smiled up at him and said, “Yes, I had happy years.”
He felt the effect of her slate blue eyes on him. He thought he felt his insides turn over.
She’d grown up in the stateliest of mansions, and in her earlier years had every comfort. The realization that her parents and older sisters were totally indifferent to her was a hurt she’d suffered for many years. Only since she had left her father’s house had she begun to let that pain go. But she would not share it with Ailesworth.
She realized she’d let the topic drop which was not well-mannered. “And then I married at sixteen and lived with my husband for five years. At his death, I sold his shop,”she flicked him a sideways look to see if he winced at the word, shop, “and since then I’ve lived very quietly with a companion. Which is the way I like it.”
“And did you have a life before marriage? I heard you mention Wiltshire to Colebrook.”
“Yes, but none of that matters.” She closed her mouth and kept her gaze resolutely ahead.
“I see.” He chanced another look at her. Her face was front and set in solemn lines. Her skin was unblemished and looked like fine Devonshire cream. “Fully formed at birth, like Aphrodite on her clam shell.”
“A famous painting by…”
“Oh! Yes. I remember seeing a picture of it.” She firmly closed her mouth and hoped her morning’s exertions explained her blush. The lady in the painting was naked and only partially covered her charms with her long hair.
He chuckled. “And what kind of a shop did your husband keep?”
Esther told him of her husband’s business buying and selling all kinds of merchandise. She made it sound larger than it was. He didn’t need to know that Jacob had borrowed heavily so that what looked like a prosperous business was not worth more than a cheap shop when all the liabilities were added.
“I was able to travel with him. We went to Portsmouth once.”
They rode the rest of the way to Elmscourt in easy harmony. Ailesworth kept his face forward but occasionally he flicked a glance at her. They talked easily of books and politics. Both had read The Corsair, Byron’s epic poem when it had come out. Esther had also read the first two Cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and recommended it to him. Ailesworth didn’t let Esther know that he’d read only a bit of The Corsair. It had seemed silly to him.
Ailesworth, meanwhile, was regretting his offer to de Sable. Colebrook and Drum had left for London at daybreak and Ailesworth wished he’d gone with him. But then he would have missed seeing Esther at breakfast and Stables kissing a buttered roll. And the sight of Esther at her window. Oh, yes, he wasn’t through with her, his feisty little widow.
Now that they were on the road, he had to listen to de Sable go on and on about some phaeton he wanted. Stables was a good sort, but Ailesworth wanted to think of Esther and how he would woo her, so he cut in on de Sable’s maunderings and said, “How do you plan on paying for a phaeton?”
De Sable sighed. “There’s an heiress I’ve been courting. Father deals in mutton. Wants to move up the ladder a bit.”
“Up the ladder?”
“You know. Marry up. She’s not bad lookin’. I can do it. But not yet.”
Ailesworth concealed a smile. De Sable wanted it both ways: to remain free to bed tonnish ladies who were attracted by his elegant good looks and to have the money he’d get by marrying the daughter of a mutton merchant.
“Better watch out. Somebody else will snatch her up.”
“I’m riding on ahead,” and Ailesworth cantered forward. He needed quiet to plot his next move in his pursuit of luscious Esther.
The next week passed swiftly and happily for Esther and Alma. Esther was able to go out riding two more times. When Kay was sure no servant would discover them, Kay had Alma join her and Esther for tea and gossip. Kay was fascinated by Alma=s story and felt rather bold to be sharing the parlor with her over tea cups.
But none of that was evident, of course. Instead, Alma Crabapple, proper daughter of Squire Crabapple, was the one who liked to hear Kay rattle on about her children and complain of her husband, the good-natured John.
The day the two women left, Kay provided her coach for their transport. Although it was usually cold in the hall with its stone floor, Esther admired Elmscourt. There were two wings to it which were kept closed, as they weren’t needed. The wings gave a feeling of safety, Esther thought, enclosing the courtyard in their gentle grasp. On the way back to London, Alma snoozed, her head bent gracefully against the cushions. Esther began figuring out how much money they’d saved by going to Kay’s: money for food and coals for the two of them. She’d hoard that money in case the winter was a hard one. It was already so cold in November. At least they’d eaten plentifully at the Dunphys.
As she looked out the window, she couldn’t avoid thoughts of Ailesworth. She kept seeing him on his horse, a great stallion which pranced in the cold morning air. Ailesworth’s powerful thighs had complete control.
If she could only forget those legs! It was unseemly to think on a man’s legs.
And his chest. His naked chest.
She glanced at Alma. She slept on. Esther envied her. Alma could nap anytime, anywhere.
She might as well think of Ailesworth. It would do no harm.
So, she daydreamed of a mighty warrior with tawny hair and eyes who swept in on a fearsome horse to rescue her from bad men: grasping merchants who wanted her to pay her bills with her body, leering noblemen who felt she should be eager for bed in exchange for a bracelet or two. He would dismiss them all and whisk her up on his steed and ride away with her. To his castle. There he would see she had everything she needed–warm, she thought. He’d see I was warm. And there’d be roast pork, with crackling and Yorkshire pudding every day.
She burst out laughing and woke Alma. She told Alma about her day dream. Alma smiled but concealed her dismay. Esther was often cold. They couldn’t afford coals for the whole house all day and night. And they hadn’t had roast pork in a very long time.
When they arrived home to Cargill Street, third house from Wallam Street, they were greeted with joy by Jessie, their maid-of-all-work. Although the two weeks the ladies had spent at Elmscourt were a vacation for Jessie and Mrs. Batson, the cook, they were both eager for their mistresses to return.
Fifteen Cargill Street was a comfortable home for both women. Both had lived in finer places but were relieved to have found a nest that suited them. The narrow house had a parlor and dining room on the ground floor with kitchens beneath. The furniture was old and heavy and looked as if it had been there since Queen Bess’s time. In the parlor were two wooden armchairs with padded seats and back rests, surprisingly comfortable. There was also a short sofa with badly worn upholstery. Esther had found a piece of fabric, vivid in blues and greens, and had draped it gracefully over the sofa. It needed daily readjusting and tucking but it enlivened the room. On the walls were simple framed watercolors that Esther had done when she was married. She’d painted country scenes: a pond with purple irises and some hills with mist on them. They softened the room and made it more elegant than it would have been otherwise.
The first floor had a bedroom for each of the women and the second floor, rooms for the servants. The women could afford only a cook and a maid. Both women were more like friends than servants. Alma found it easier to get on with people she was friendly with and Esther had slowly come to share her viewpoint. Jessie, the maid, usually behaved with decorum in the presence of visitors but the three women often did tasks together such as cleaning and mending. Alma enjoyed making pastries and would occasionally give the cook, Mrs. Batson, the afternoon off and turn out lemon tarts and scones filled with pieces of dried apple. All four women looked forward to afternoon tea on those days.
The third day after Esther and Alma had arrived home, there was an afternoon visitor.
. “Ma’am! You have a visitor!” Jessie’s eyes were bugging out. She looked at the card in her hand. “Lord Ailesworth.”
Esther and Alma looked at each other. They were seated in the parlor. Alma was mending a pillowcase while Esther read some of The Rape of the Lock to her. Alma stuffed the pillowcase behind a cushion.
“Show him in, Jessie.” Esther told herself not to be missish. She stood gracefully and ignored her heart which had speeded up.
Jessie opened the door to the parlor and announced in a loud voice, “Lord Ailesworth, Mrs. Beryll,” and Ailesworth came in. He was smiling slightly at Jessie’s announcement. He bowed.
“Mrs. Beryll. I hope I find you well, Ma’am?”
“Lord Ailesworth. May I present Mrs. Nelson. Mrs. Nelson, Lord Ailesworth.”
“A pleasure, Mrs. Nelson. I hope I find you both well?”
“Yes, thank you, Lord Ailesworth. Jessie,” who still stood in the doorway, “could we have tea.”
“Yes’m,” and she bobbed and left, closing the door.
Esther sat down and Alma and Ailesworth followed. “And you are well, my lord?”
“Yes, I am.” He didn’t mean to, but he stared at Esther. She was clearly the lady of the house and though her dress was shabbier than any he’d seen at Elmscourt, she still looked like a duchess.
“Did you enjoy your hunting, my lord?” Alma asked.
“Yes, Mrs. Nelson, I did. I don’t have much opportunity to gallop after beasts. The last afternoon was especially enjoyable.” He let his eyes slide to Esther. “I don’t even know if they caught a fox or not.” He turned to Esther. “Do you remember, Mrs. Beryll?” He smiled at her.
“No, they didn’t. The fox got away.”
“Yes, I believe you are right. Of course, sometimes the fox doesn’t get away. Sometimes it’s caught.” He put all he could into the look he gave her.
Alma blinked. Oh, my, what a man. Esther felt rather warm. Her clothes felt tight.
“Have you seen any of your friends since you returned, my lord?” she asked.
“Yes, I often see Drum, Lord Grainger, and I see the others at my clubs.”
Jessie arrived with the tea. Alma rose to open the door for her as Jessie tended to bang into the door with the tray if not assisted. And the arrival of a lord would have overset her.
Jessie was able to get the tray on the small table in front of the settee with only a few rattles of crockery, and a few sideways glances at the lord.
“Thank you, Jessie. That’ll be all.”
“Yes’m,” and she remembered to curtsey.
As Esther served the tea, the talk became general. Ailesworth was interested to hear that both the ladies were well informed about politics and world events.
“But you don’t read the gossip columns, Mrs. Beryll.”
“No, I don’t. Mrs. Nelson reads me some of it. But we don’t know the people, you see, so it’s fruitless.”
“None of the Lord A’s and Lady B’s mean anything to you.”
“No.” She met his gaze levelly.
He put his tea cup down and rose. “Ladies, I’ve enjoyed my visit. With your permission, I’ll come again.”
Alma smiled at him. Esther gave him a look he couldn’t interpret and nodded.
He bowed and left, leaving the ladies no opportunity to see him to the door.
Ten blocks from Esther’s house, he found a flower stall where an old dandy, dressed in the old style powdered wig and satin coat with stiff pleats was arguing with the owner.
He dismounted and walked closer to study the roses.
Once the old gentleman was gone, the flower seller asked, ‘What color would you like, sir?’ Ailesworth hesitated. ‘Red roses for your true love, pink if you are hoping and white for remembering.’ The flower seller made up the designations for the colors to fit whatever customer she was talking to.
‘Two dozen pink roses and send them here,” and he wrote down Esther’s name and address on his calling card. He told the flower seller to find a boy to send them. Immediately a small boy presented himself and grinned up at Ailesworth. He gave the boy a coin and then he mounted his horse and headed for Manchester Shipping and his work there.
Twenty minutes later there was a knock on the door at Cargill Street. When Jessie opened it, a small urchin grinned up at her. “Missus has some flowers.”
Jessie took them and called out, “Ma=am! Flowers! From the lord!”
She forgot to close the front door and the boy peered in. Nice and clean, it was.
Esther appeared and took the roses. “A gentleman sent you with these?”
He grinned. “A right flash cove. Looked like one of them old knights.”
“Give him a penny, Jessie,” and she dipped her nose into the bouquet. What glorious pink roses.
She turned to Jessie who had closed the door. “Get me a vase, Jessie.”
“Yes’m. Where’d it be?”
Alma darted into the dining room and returned with an ugly old china vase, full of dried leaves and grasses dripping seeds. “I’ll throw these out, Esther”
The vase when filled with roses was put on a table in the parlor. The three women gazed at them.
“Beautiful, I sez,” and Jessie left.