In the small town of Colchester, provincial by today's metropolitan standard, the Prescott family had seen generations pass and eras come and go. Enough time had elapsed since their coming to the county that it was commonly believed by residents that Colchester had not existed before Prescotts came to it. This was no ill-founded notion with regard to an old New England township; indeed, scholars researched the matter, affirmed old William Prescott's place as founder of Colchester and first settler to the N Valley, and soon after launched a study of local genealogy to determine the reach of his patrimony. It came as something of a surprise to many of the townspeople when the results of the study revealed that most families of Prescott extraction (and Colchester origin) had long since moved to other parts of the country. Hardly a handful, so to speak, remained even in the New England states, while others, having ventured south or into the Midwest, were barely worth noting.
Who, then, were those of Prescott lineage whose common abode was Colchester at present? Dr. John Barton-Prescott wanted to know rather out of a personal interest in the matter, having arrived not so long ago in the district upon his assuming a position as Chair of Department at Colchester College. Dr. John and his wife had observed that townsfolk took for granted their connection to the old Prescott family, the Colchester Prescotts; they were informed at church, in faculty meetings and in the front yard by neighbors – all inadvertently – of this presumed relationship, and Dr. John saw no need to go into unnecessary detail with these quaint but well-meaning individuals, since after all it had been rumored among the Barton-Prescotts that some connection to a rural community in the N Valley region existed, if only by way of a distant cousin.
But consequently his curiosity was piqued. Dr. John's former domicile was a wealthy suburb of Boston, though his family had sustained a relatively moderate standard of living until a sudden and unaccountable increase in affluence enabled them to take up residence in Newton. His admission to Harvard was a happy turn of fate, following the inflation of his family's income directly. He was a good-natured man, already well liked by many of his underlings at the college, for he had no desire to work harder than was necessary himself, and therefore was lenient with his employees.
Of his wife's qualifications there was never any question among the townsfolk. Mrs. Barton-Prescott was, in the eyes of Colchester residents, thoroughly a woman of the world: she mixed Christian values with modern ethics and modern fashion: she was religious in her devotion to parish functions and the upkeep of the church, though professedly liberal in her views; her children had private music lessons and attended summer festivals abroad; she shopped only from catalogues and health-food stores, never compared prices or ingredients, and had been known to disdain a parish-member who hinted that butter was superior to Crisco when baking a piecrust. Of the good repute of Mrs. Barton-Prescott's family there could be no doubt in the mind of her devoted husband. Her father was Diplomat to a particular South American country, and he was related through marriage to the Kennedy family. That the Diplomat's daughter sometimes pronounced her vowels and Rs very much like those of the Spanish tongue, and that she bore no resemblance to her father's wife, was of no account to the good people of Colchester; they welcomed her warmly. Needless to say, however, Mrs. Dr. John took little interest in matters of heredity that so tickled her husband's fancy.
Dr. John and his wife had been settled comfortably at the old Linford estate on the outskirts of Colchester for a month or so when the staff at the college Music Department convened for a midsummer review. At this point Dr. John was midway through his "Prescott Family Tree," as he fondly referred to it, and his materials were spread over a portion of his computer desk in the Music Building as well as at Linford in his study. Between his effusions of delight at seeing them all again and his attempt to impart at once to Mr. Robert Cleveland, professor of theory, his entire agenda for the imminent meeting, Dr. John could not help losing his grasp on a particularly relevant page of research.
Mr. Cleveland, who was not only Dr. John's colleague but also his brother-in-law, retrieved the errant article and returned it with perfect indifference. Mrs. Karen Allenham, professor of music history, politely turned her attention to her papers (of which she had a good many – more, indeed, than Dr. John had compiled for the appointment) and adjusted her glasses.
But for the presence of a fourth, the incident would have passed unremarked. But this good lady was known to keep company often with the Barton-Prescotts, on account of her being the sole administrative assistant in the Music Department, and having much to do with Dr. John in order to acquaint him with the way of things at the college. Also, though perhaps Mrs. Barton-Prescott would have preferred not to own it, Mrs. Jennifer Winters (that was the good lady's name) was in fact her Godmother, and among others had been helpful in obtaining the position of Chair for Dr. John.
Mrs. Winters was known and well liked by none too few of the townspeople and this happy circumstance made her connection to the Barton-Prescotts a more favorable one in that mistress's eyes. She was a widow and lived alone, though one of her Goddaughters had bided with her prior to her marriage. Said Goddaughter was Mrs. Barton-Prescott's own sister, recently become the lawful Mrs. Robert Cleveland, and the separation had been trying to the older lady, who dearly prized good company.
It was no shock to those who knew her that she exclaimed, on glimpsing the contents of Dr. John's paper,
"Well, if you haven't got the Norland girls' names written down there, John! Why didn't you ask me about the Norland girls? I could've told you they've got Prescott blood in their veins!"
Mr. Cleveland cleared his throat and looked at Mrs. Winters with narrowed eyes. Two spots of color appeared on Mrs. Allenham's pale cheeks, closer akin to freckles than feminine bloom, and she frowned till her mouth compressed into a thin line.
But their discomfiture was for naught, because Dr. John was quite of a mind with Mrs. Winters in that he believed good fellowship and closer acquaintance to be more pressing matters than any other on the agenda that day. Besides, he was oblivious to the impropriety the other two perceived in the secretary's inquiry into his personal affairs. In fact he was made well nigh jolly by it, since it gave him cause to speak of his project.
"I was just on the verge of asking you, Jenny," he explained, smiling widely, "because it looks precisely as if those girls were my own cousins. Robert; Mrs. Allenham; I've been looking for my blood relations in this area, since before I came here I was certain I had a few, our common ancestor being old Prescott himself. And lo, I've uncovered them! They live almost outside of town… does anyone know the Stirling House? – Yes, take a look, Robert. I confess I'm rather proud of myself! It even crossed my mind that I should forget composing for brass band and turn a genealogist. Ha ha!"
"Oh yes, I know the place," said Mrs. Allenham, seeming to relax a bit, or at any rate to be unable to hold her tongue on the matter. "It's a proper old house, but when I drove by it last I noticed the grounds were in disarray, and the wrap-around porch propped up with wood beams…"
Mr. Cleveland's scowl on studying his brother-in-law's work had grown so pronounced that Mrs. Allenham lapsed into silence and seemed to withdraw into her chair. Mrs. Winters interjected cheerfully,
"I've heard the Norland family is going through some rather difficult times. Poor dears, a single mother and three daughters, and now their grandfather's gone and died and the property and other assets passing to Ms. Norland's brother!"
Mr. Cleveland offered a skeptical 'harrumph' and said, "I'm sure, Jenny, old Mr. Norland didn't die on purpose."
"But Robert, how horrible for them!" expostulated his brother-in-law, and entreated Mrs. Winters to say more.
"You're very right, Robert, to say he didn't die on purpose – but he didn't leave Stirling House to his son of his own volition, either. In fact he left it to his daughter!"
"I've heard that he willed the property to his daughter and her three daughters, but his son's wife was dissatisfied, and so they disputed his sister's claim – and now, I don't know what's happened to them over the last year."
"When you're ready, Dr. Barton-Prescott," ventured Mrs. Allenham, "I have questions about our incoming students' applications and auditions. Also, additional recruitment would be advantageous, since our chamber orchestra wants half a string section."
"Strings!" repeated Mrs. Winters. "Why didn't I make the connection before? One of the Norland girls plays the violin, and another the cello, and I'm sure they must be about the right age for college. When I last saw her them they looked almost grown!"
Dr. John snatched a sheet of letterhead from his writing desk and took a fountain pen from its sheath.
"This is an opportunity that won't be wasted," he said as he sat and began to write animatedly. "I'll meet my cousins right away, learn more of their situation, and offer a scholarship – we do have enough funds, Mrs. Allenham, I'm sure – well, of course, that is, if the girls really do play well. It will be wonderful for all parties! And my wife and I won't pass such lonely hours at Linford as we are forced to do sometimes these days."
"I'd forgotten how fast you move, John," said Mr. Cleveland with a smirk, "but even you shouldn't be hasty enough to quit your life's career for a science at which you are so –" he tossed the sheet of paper he'd been perusing on the table carelessly – "hopelessly bad."
Mrs. Winters laughed heartily, and Mrs. Allenham looked pained.
"I'm sure he's good at everything and bad at nothing, Robert. What are you going on about?" asked the former.
"The Norland girls aren't his cousins at all; look, see there; he's related to their cousin, who isn't really related to them either." Mr. Cleveland looked satisfied with himself for a moment, while his brother-in-law and Mrs. Winters appeared crestfallen, and Mrs. Allenham masked a smile.
But presently Dr. John Barton-Prescott cried,
"Don't be a killjoy, Robert! Of course they're my cousins. We have a common ancestor. Whether by blood or not is of little consequence to me. What do you say I write to them anyway, Jenny?"
Mrs. Winters clapped her hands delightedly, much like a small child would have done. "Yes, write to them, John, by all means! Such pretty girls, and one of them's sure to be intelligent!"
Dr. John fell to the task with relish.