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After the funeral at Cranford, when the mourners had dispersed, Hupsman travelled in the coach to Salt Hill with Mrs Wilmot where she bade him take a dish of tea and a slice of angel cake. He had dared to presume that she would not discharge him hastily.
“Is it not a miserable thing to lose a dear friend and mother?” she asked, fastidiously dabbing a handkerchief to her eyes and the tip of her nose. “Esther was my champion in distress. A wise counsellor.”
“I hope that I, too, may prove the same,” Hupsman heard himself say.
“You are a man of principle, Mr Hupsman, content to walk the humble path. If our statesmen had your qualities, the country wouldn’t be going to rack and ruin.”
Hupsman dissembled foolishly, well pleased with the comment. The drowsy housefly aroused from hibernation and alighting that moment on the gâteau St Honoré varnished with syrup was not more delighted. “Alas, the sons of Israel are not openly welcome in the chambers of government.”
“Unless, they are as foully rich as my brother-in-law,” Fanny said wearily.
“I take it you refer to Sir Sampson Gideon, or Baron Eardley as he has become?” Hupsman recalled that his own family’s naturalised status had been purchased by a private act of George II and defection to the English Church. (Mrs Wilmot’s crucifix nestled beguilingly between the frothy folds of her fichu.) “I have attained the view that Christianity is the ripe fruit of my Jewish stock.” He was astonished by his own florid metaphor. As he spoke, a plump, garnet-coloured cherry, hothouse grown, slipped between Fanny’s lips. “I have not forsaken it: it has been subsumed.”
“Now, the new Constitution of America, that manages to combine religion and politics. Mr Wilmot speaks of it with admiration whilst he works hard to see the Loyalists recompensed for their losses in the war.”
“Your...your husband is a man of vision, madam,” remarked the clergyman in hopes of eliciting a tasty morsel of personal information.
Fanny sighed heavily and touched her forehead as though she were about to faint. “What is so vexing... I fear I must speak plainly here... What it pains me to express is that sometimes people aren’t all of a piece, you know. Mr Wilmot is revered by his colleagues. He is occupied by many humanitarian endeavours...”
“And an antiquarian, a patron of the Fine Arts, I understand.”
“That is well and good, but he does not always keep the best company. They may be politicians, Admirals, men of stature...but they engage in sacrilegious practices.”
Hupsman’s cup clattered on to its saucer a little too noisily. “You don’t say so.”
“Unspeakable things. I refer to Medmenham, Mr Hupsman, a short distance from here. The West Wycombe Caves. I take it you have some idea what goes on there?”
“It is the headquarters of the Hell Fire Club, that I know. My dear Mrs Wilmot...”
She held up her hand as if to stem a protest. “It is immodest in me to mention such topics, but oh! I have longed to talk to someone who will not bid me shrug off the follies of husbands and stop being a silly goose.”
“I find that London society is overweeningly censorious in many ways, and lamentably lax in others.”
“I cannot imagine what the children will think,” she went on, referring to her daughters and small son from whom economics had forced her to separate. “These are vile perversions! At Medmenham, people of import, overseas dignitaries, are entertained! Why even Benjamin Franklin has visited! Mr Wilmot and his friends, Sir George Warren and William Cokayne, were trustees of the Danesfield Estate in the neighbourhood. It belonged to Sir John Borlase Warren and was used for the very purpose of playing host.”
“My wife is from Northamptonshire and knew the Cokayne family,” interjected Hupsman, feeling a diversion might serve to defuse matters.
“I may be a mere female without independent means, but I can’t bear to live with a spouse who condones such goings-on,” declared Fanny.
“No lady should have to endure it.”
Fanny wore her probity like armour. The mother of six children, she had reached a comfortable plateau of self-assurance at thirty. John Wilmot was ten years her senior and had taken her to wife when she was sixteen, the age Lizzie Hupsman had fled the nest for Tom Hickes. Fanny Sainthill came from Osmaston in Derbyshire, on the Wilmot estates, and had lived in supernal ignorance of the world and its ways. She had idealised Wilmot, her paladin with a zeal for justice. He sought to be a worthy protector and had feasted upon the marrow of her adoration, until, one by one, his failings in her sight were enlarged by disillusion and he came to think of her as a harpy.
“It is in Mr Wilmot’s nature to be distrustful of women. He believes an aunt has cheated the family of justifiable expectations.”
“Sir Robert, Mr Wilmot’s uncle, bequeathed the baronetcy and Osmaston estates in Derbyshire to his eldest natural child, also Robert. When his wife died, he flew to the altar with his mistress, Elizabeth Foote, a doctor’s daughter from Connecticut. All his children had already been born out of wedlock to her. Imagine how insupportable that must have been for the first Lady Wilmot who was a martyr to sickness. She had my husband’s abiding sympathy. Sir Robert died only a couple of years afterwards, having readjusted his will and covered the monstrous truth. Details of the first marriage have been suppressed, dare I say ‘lost’. Posterity will be none the wiser.”
“I see,” said Hupsman, his mind elsewhere. His upright collar glowed like a furnace.
“It meant that Sir John, my father-in-law, did not inherit. Robert and John were as good as twins. They were born as closely together as nature singly allows. They even married around the same period.”
“What is remarkable,” said Hupsman, “is that the son was able to succeed. These things are cumbered with rigorous rules.”
“They are respected servants of the nation, the Wilmots. The offices they hold wield more power than the Throne. The trouble with Mr Wilmot is that he is a man of dual standards. Do you not think, Mr Hupsman, that I did the right thing in deserting him?”
“You have no cause to admonish yourself,” Hupsman consoled. “Marriage should be more than a legal bond in Christian civilisation. It is a union of souls.” He thought of poker-faced Elizabeth and how she seldom deferred to him. What a repressed organism his own marriage was! His twin sons regarded him with barely concealed loathing for his corrections of syntax and disparagement of their iconoclastic views. But Fanny was a woman of sophistication and intellect. She valued his worth.
Outdoors, the air was dank and listless; a dim February afternoon was beginning to garner the shadows of evening. He pictured his mother’s coffin, interred in the silent earth, and shivered. Indoors, the coals in the hearth had long taken fire and the phosphorescent warmth seemed to Hupsman to correspond with his own inner glow. He was caught up in a kind of suspenseful elation. Nothing had meaning beyond the shared warmth of this cell. “Fanny,” he said involuntarily. “May I call you Fanny?”
“Oh, please do. Esther would have wished it, I am sure.”
“And you must call me Huppy. Tis a foolish nickname, but my lord has fallen into the way of it, you know.”
Fanny Wilmot smiled beguilingly and owned it a privilege. “Won’t you stay and partake of a pheasant supper? You cannot set out at this hour. Esther’s room is well-aired.”
And steeped in the mystery of death, he thought. The Grim Reaper overshadowed every aspect of his life. He must snatch what brightness he could while he may.
He had intended to take a chaise to High Wycombe and catch The Regulator which would convey him to Gloucester overnight, but Fanny’s offer was tempting. The longcase clock chimed a portentous half hour and he saw that it was already too late: he would miss his connection. Elizabeth would guess he had been delayed. That she had chosen not to accompany him, making her excuse their straitened circumstances, irritated him as much as it relieved him. Neither was the boys’ education to be interrupted. As for Lizzie, she had pleaded some feminine indisposition. His children had not been close to their grandmother. She was too remote, smelling of stale Hungary Water and archaic gentility. The sentimental Dutch masters about her rooms spoke of a vanished homeland, a felicity and order more wistful than remembered.
While they were dining, Fanny said: “And how does my lord Berkeley these days?”
“Tolerably well. He is in the rudest health. The same cannot be said for the Dowager, I fear.”
“So matrimony suits him? Contrary, is it not?”
Augustus Thomas Hupsman stuttered, turned a mulberry colour and wiped his mouth on his napkin. “He...I... Where can you have heard that?”
“From a most disagreeable source and I dare say it is indecorous of me to mention it, but thus it was: William Cokayne attended a levée in Holborn given by a Mrs Wright who is alleged to have enjoyed liaisons with at least two Members of Parliament. Both are lawyers and friends of Mr Wilmot. This unknown female appears to be all the rage in Town. She asserts, would you believe, that the Earl of Berkeley is her brother-in-law!”
“Dear me,” said Hupsman, visibly flustered. In an awkward reflex, he put up his hand to mop his brow and the quavering candle flames all but guaranteed darkness. “Dear me, this will never do. It cannot be.”
“Then it is a falsehood? I knew it must be!”
“I...I am not at liberty...to divulge his lordship’s affairs. Not even to you, Fanny.”
“Forgive me. I see I have spoken out of turn,” said Fanny, finding this reply supremely unsatisfactory. What she didn’t tell him was that she had reason to believe her husband had had an amourette with this femme fatale and was curious to know what manner of woman Lord Berkeley had chosen to reproduce heirs if Mrs Wright were her sister. She deduced from Hupsman’s reaction that there was something in it.
“This is a most toothsome Burgundy,” said Hupsman, having recovered himself. “Mama, God rest her, was fond of her wine. It is to be hoped that we do not cross swords with our French cousins.”
Hupsman retired for the night in a restless mood. The rich, gamey meat consumed at supper had been riddled with shot and argued with his digestion in the small hours. His head was milling with fear and fantasy. Next morning, he took his leave of Fanny, planting a well-considered kiss upon her hand, and set out for Berkeley. “Goodbye, Huppy,” she said and her kittenish amber eyes came to rest upon him. “You have illumined a dark night.”
How he wished he dare flee from the gloomy Vicarage, his responsibilities and his joyless family! Executor duties might afford an excuse, but the cost of regular expeditions to Berkshire was prohibitive at present. He had years of educating his sons ahead. To bring disgrace upon his household was unthinkable. Besides, he was sure Fanny’s conscience would not allow any but a full observance of the proprieties. Imagination was running away with him!
As the chaise battled through driving rain, he started to think about ‘Mrs Wright’. When the Earl had confided in him that Miss Cole had sisters whose mode of living was open to question, Hupsman had no clue that they moved in such astral spheres. The secrecy was not to be wondered at. If the sisters were aiming to foment scandal as a means of assuring their futures, it could bring down not only the Earl, but himself.
At last, as the charcoaled lineaments of Cheltenham came into view and the coachman sprang the team at an incline, Hupsman recollected that he had one ace card. Yes, he had set light to the wedding certificate and had been instantly overwhelmed by fear. Compunction and wit had been a two-edged razor. Belatedly, he had set about creating Banns to corroborate what had taken place, should he ever be called upon to defend his corner. (There had been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing at the Castle in the early months of 1785. Berkeley was absent in London a good deal and Hupsman had filled in dates during the Advent season, within the specified legal time frame, when his patron had been in residence.)
The irony was that that scrap of paper, a blatant sham, testified to what Lord Berkeley’s chaplain was convinced was the truth.