Photo courtesy of Berkeley Castle
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Colonel West was rapt in admiration. He had grown exceedingly fond of Mary in an avuncular way and thought that while his titled friend deferred to her, possibly more than he might a wife, he was in other respects cavalier. The talk at meal-times did not include that freedom customary in the presence of mistresses. It was a curious coupledom. Only yesterday, Mary had intimated that the Reverend Mr Hupsman knew more of the matter than the gentry of Gloucestershire and that everyone would be wiser in due season.
She put down her napkin upon the table and excused herself to oversee the children’s bedtime, leaving the gentlemen to their port and cigars. How empty and dull the room seemed, boorishly crowded with dark Jacobean oak and pregnant with atmospheres from ancient disputes.
“Your lady combines so many talents,” remarked Cranfield. “Each time I see her, she is grown in self-assurance and her character unfolds delightfully.” Had they been alone, he might have imparted a gnawing feeling of trespass. Nevertheless, the facts were undeniable: his own line would supersede his brother’s. Mary played a virtuous role, but subtle hints of matrimony did not sway the naval Knight. He was sure he of all people would have been taken into Frederick’s confidence.
“Knows her oats, I can’t deny,” agreed the Earl. “I have long been put out to pasture!”
“Where you are mightily in your element with your hounds, my lord,” grinned the Captain. “Miss Tudor has chosen to take upon herself a burden of responsibility and patently thrives on it.”
“We lick the platter clean, Prescott,” the Earl told him, leaning back in his chair to blow a controlled smokescreen.
Lord Berkeley was first down to breakfast next morning, closely followed by Colonel West.
“I find I am more disinclined than usual to leave the old place,” the Earl sighed. “Many things cry out for attention. The pictures are badly in want of cleaning and the some of the tapestries need repair.”
“It would be a shame to lose sight of what your ancestors saw.”
“That sentiment struck me only yesterday, confound it! I begin to think I have spent my youth with my eyes closed.”
“Miss Tudor was telling me the other day that she would like a portrait of you and Fitz if she can persuade you to sit.”
“Would she, by God! I know nothing of it.”
“Pray, go easy on her, my lord. No one could be more assiduous in nurturing your interests.”
“Do you imagine I don’t realise that? I tell you, West, I’ve no wish to speak ill of the Dowager, but when I remember how we ran wild under the eye of a succession of tutors and nurses, budding insurgents that we were, I am grass-green with envy of my own sprigs.”
“Actually, I was wondering...bearing in mind that Miss Tudor deserves to extend her circle of friends...whether you might permit me to introduce her to my cousin, Mrs Bell, when we are at Cranford. To be blunt, my lord, it pains me to have to address her as Miss Tudor...”
“She won’t mind if you call her ‘Mary’,” smirked his lordship, pretending to misunderstand what was implied.
“Obliged, I am sure.”
“This is the lady who paints, if memory serves. She is married to a fellow who is something in the city?”
“Thomas is a leather merchant, yes. Catherine is uncommon talented. Her brother is William Hamilton of the Royal Academy, so perhaps that is not very surprising.”
“Women have taken up the paintbrush now, have they, West? Not content with penning improving novels and following the drum... Whatever next? We shall have them doing more than whispering in the ear of our politicians.” A repellent image of Susan twined like columbine around John Wilmot’s neck accosted the Earl’s mind.
“If I may say so, agriculture is an enterprising departure.”
“Mary wants to build cottages. Not a gainful investment on the face of it, but she says overcrowding brings disease. This in turn causes low morale and poor returns.”
“To say nought of early mortality! I believe it is not hypothesis, my lord. She must see it every day on her travels around your estates.”
Berkeley said soberly: “It is as well her mind is occupied.” He pushed away his plate of buttered eggs. “I am in no mood for London. Mary does not socialise where she might, and I have no mind to sanction it, though you have my blessing to bring in Mrs Bell. To speak plain, I’m no oil-painting, and no longer in the flush of youth. She’d be swept off her feet by some debonair cavalry officer the minute I’d gone off to Boodle’s! And then what?”
The Colonel’s laughter was polite but dismissive. “Phantoms, my lord. You are sparring with phantoms. Mary’s not that sort of female. She is utterly constant.”
“I’m a lucky dog, West, but I must never tell her so,” admitted his lordship. “Twould turn her head in a trice.”