January 1775 – London.
The carriage trundled along the bumpy cobblestone road, jostling and bouncing the occupants within. Rose Tavington reluctantly pulled back the window curtain to take a peek outside as they passed.
She stared up at the tall, imposing buildings that lined the broad street, then she shifted her gaze to the people who resided and worked in this part of the city. She eyed them critically, the women in their simple, mismatched bodices and skirts. With linen aprons tied around their waists, woollen shawls draped over their shoulders and simple cotton caps to cover their hair. Most held babes in their arms or had older, raggedly dressed children playing nearby. Rose knew these women were the mothers of the children accompanying them, for if their clothing was anything to go by, Rose judged they could ill afford a nanny or governess. While she spied the occasional silk, most of the women were clearly too poor to wear such. Their husbands were in their workaday clothing, long pants and loose shirts, all wearing long coats of various quality.
She glanced at the other occupants in the carriage, all of them resplendent in silk dresses and velvet capes. The young woman sitting beside her was Miss Eleanor Tavington, her daughter. Sitting across from Rose was her sister, Mrs. Jane Woodhouse and her daughter, Miss Margaret Woodhouse. Rose, Jane, Eleanor and Margaret all sported long black hair, though it was pinned beneath their bonnets. Their eyes were an identical light blue hue, their skin pale and unblemished. They were tall, also, though not quite as tall as the men in their family. William - Rose's son - for instance, bore the same colouring as his mother but he was certainly taller.
Rose wondered, as she studied the other women's silks and velvets, if perhaps it would be prudent to wear the more simple clothing their new neighbours wore. After all, they would now be living amongst the working folk; she had no desire to entice thieves.
She had passed through this area of London before, many a time. But never with a thought of actually living there! No, her visits to London were usually spent in far more affluent areas, in luxuriously appointed apartments, where she would wile away her time at elegant pursuits.
Nevertheless, with their wealth all but spent, this was to be the case no longer. She and her family would from this point forth live on Gresham St, a street off Cheapside, London's financial epicentre. Which was home to all walks of life. From affluent lawyers and attorneys, to butchers, grocers and fish mongers. One feature of living so close to Cheapside - with so many business owners competing for customers, the family would be able to get their produce cheaply.
Still, it rankled. Rose remembered sitting in the parlor at her Liverpool mansion, drinking tea with her close friend Mrs. Tennant, the two laughing heartily as they gossiped about an acquaintance who had married her daughter off to a lawyer who lived and worked on Cheapside. Their mutual acquaintance had been proud of the match - which was the cause of Rose and Mrs. Tennant's mirth that day.
What must Mrs. Tennant think of me now? Rose lamented silently. What of my other friends? Perhaps I should not have been so uncharitable about those living in Cheapside, now that I must make my life there also.
She sighed heavily and let the curtain fall. The truth was, of all of Rose's Society peers, only a few would still consider themselves her friends. Luckily for her, Mrs. Tennant was one of those who still welcomed her, for their history was long and their friendship was strong.
"It wasn't very foresightful of me," she said aloud, pushing thoughts of being cast from Society aside and returning to the problem at hand - the matter of her, and her families, attire.
"What wasn't very foresightful of you?" Jane asked.
"We had all of these lovely silk gowns commissioned," Rose explained. "But now - judging by what our neighbours are wearing - I think I was perhaps a little… exorbitant."
"Oh, let me see," Maggie - Jane's eleven year old daughter, leaned past her mother to peek out the window.
"I believe you're right, Mamma," Eleanor put in. "We'll be helping Miss Jilly with the chores now, and we can't very well do that in silks."
Rose tightened her lips.
"I was speaking of what targets we'd make for thieves, if we dress so fashionably when only a few in this area will be doing so. It's vexing," she tossed her head and sniffed. "The granddaughters of a Baroness, forced to wash dishes. I take it I am now expected to learn to cook?"
"Miss Jilly will do that," Jane smiled. "But Eleanor is right. Miss Jilly and Mr. Dawson will not be able to manage the entire household on their own, and we can't afford to hire more servants. There will be times when we must step in. But dishes and cooking? I'm not certain we'll need to go that far. Can you imagine it? The news of Lady Eliza Windrum's granddaughter's washing dishes would quite possibly make the Gazette!"
"I can imagine it," Rose said darkly. "And a very clever satire it would make too. I can just see the caricature now, should one draw it. Of the two of us, standing at the bucket in the kitchen, with our silks and jewels, jewelled nets in our hair, our soft fingers wrinkled from the soapy water." Rose shuddered and pushed the image of the terrible drawing away.
"Still, I agree we should invest in more simple attire," Eleanor said reasonably. "Besides, I can't think that we'll have much occasion to wear our more fashionable dresses - unless you wish to visit the Oratorio every evening? Hmm?" Her smile broadened. "Perhaps hire one of the boxes - just like we used to do?"
"No - we won't be able to afford that now," Rose returned her gaze to the window and continued speaking as she stared outside. "How can one man spend through so much wealth? My dowry - twenty thousand pounds! Our grandmother would be turning in her grave!"
Jane nodded agreement. Their grandmother - Lady Eliza Windrum, had been a Baroness. To hear tell of two of her grandchildren being bought so low certainly would have had the old Baroness spinning in her coffin.
Such a title would suggest grand family wealth, and Lady Windrum had been wealthy indeed. But the bulk of her fortune was bequeathed to her eldest son, Rose and Jane's Uncle. A significant figure was then divided evenly amongst the rest of Lady Windrum's children. Rose and Jane's own mother - Mrs. Rosemary Parker - had inherited twenty thousand pounds upon her mother's death.
By the time this was received, the Parkers had already amassed a fortune of their own. Rose's father, Sir Geoffrey Parker, had been able to provide a twenty thousand pound dowry for his two daughters, but upon his death the bulk of the family fortune had gone to Rose and Jane's oldest brother. And unfortunately, Mr. Robert Parker did not take his responsibility to his sister's seriously at all. They were set adrift, with no family willing to help them. And so, a Baroness in their ancestry or not, with their wealth depleted, Rose and Jane would simply have to make do as they could.
"I'm just glad she is not alive to see how far we have fallen," Rose said now, and Jane understood she was speaking of their mother now. "If she knew that our husbands - men she had approved of - would spend all our wealth, leaving us destitute, she'd be quite anguished."
"Yes, she would have, but it was hardly her fault," Jane replied. "Your John and my Nicholas charmed us all, even Papa, who was the most difficult to please of us all. They concealed their faults well while courting us, did those two Gentlemen."
"Yes, they did," Rose's voice took on an edge. "But I'll tell you this right now - I'll not allow my daughter to marry such a man - no matter how deeply in love she falls." She glanced sidelong at Eleanor, who remained silent - she had heard her mother expound all of this before. "I don't care if he is the son of an Earl! No - the heir of an Earl! I'll not marry her to a man who spends time at the tables, and even more time in the arms of strumpets!"
"No chance I'll marry an Earl now," Eleanor said softly, but Rose was on a tangent and continued speaking right over her daughter.
"I don't care how well he thinks he conceals his appetites. I'll dig, and dig, and dig. I'll question his friends, his family - his enemies! They will be more forthcoming! If there is so much of a hint reported in any of the broadsheets - or even a whisper on the streets - I'll not allow it!"
"I'll not allow my Maggie to marry such either," Jane said. "It still amazes me, truly. John and Nicholas both had considerable wealth of their own, before father granted his permission for us to marry them. I know John had more, but Nicholas and my wealth combined still amounted to forty thousand! How could both of them squander so much?"
Cousins, John Tavington and Nicholas Woodhouse shared a common grandsire, Thomas Tavington. Thomas and his brother, Captain Edward Tavington, entered the slave trade which earned their family their fortune. The next generation of Tavington's added to this wealth and success. John and Nicholas were born into the third generation and had only ever known a life of excess.
"They were cousins," Rose shrugged. "And the apple doesn't fall so far from the tree."
"Edward Tavington doesn't have those vices," Jane snorted, speaking of the Tavington's current heir. "And nor did his father. If you ask me, John and Nicholas were simply spoilt rascals who never appreciated their grandfather's efforts to bring the Tavington's to such prominence and wealth. Take John for example. With his inheritance and your dowry, this should have been enough to see the two of you living in the lap of luxury for the rest of your lives. Perhaps even for the next two generations!"
"Hmm. If not for John's vices, I dare say it would have," Rose scowled. Just then, she heard the clopping of a horses hooves - growing louder as the rider drew closer to the carriage, and she smoothed her expression. William - her only son - caught up to them. He nodded at his mother through the window, and she smiled back encouragingly. He sat so stiffly in his saddle - she could see the tension in every line of his body. Even in his blue eyes, which were cold and hard, and far too haunted for a young man of twenty-two years. He was trying so hard - she knew he was. And she would not allow him for one moment to believe his efforts were not appreciated.
It was William who had found them the home in Gresham St - which they were en-route to at that moment. It was William who had spent the last three weeks travelling back and forth from the mansion in Liverpool to the small apartment in London, moving their belongings and furnishings, trying his damnedest to build them a home. It was William who was now to enter Oxford to study law, when he had previously anticipated living off his portion of the family business.
Unfortunately, instead of John bequeathing his stake in the family business to William, he had sold his share back to his brother to cover his debts. With no income forthcoming, William would now be forced to spend the next four years studying law - a career which held no interest to him. And if pursuing a subject he did not enjoy were not bad enough, he would be forced to study right along with his peers, who may not welcome William among their ranks any longer, thanks to his father's ruinous conduct. Much as Rose herself had lost friends because of John Tavington's debaucheries.
William might well be in for a bleak four years indeed, if his fellow students shunned him. However, it was a sacrifice he was willing to make, if the end result provided him with the ability to support his family.
"It's such a pity that John wasn't the heir," Jane said now. "William would have inherited the mansion instead of his Uncle Edward, and we would have been able to continue to reside there."
"Yes," Rose said flatly. "A pity."
"It's a pity that John saw fit to squander all our wealth," Eleanor said smartly as she spoke of her own father. "A pity there wasn't more than a measly few thousand pounds left to us."
"What did he spend the money on?" Maggie said.
Up until now, the young girl had been holding her breath as she sat on the edge of her seat while the women conversed openly of their husbands. Something they rarely did in front of her - they usually fell silent and changed the subject as soon as they were aware of her presence. It was not as though she meant to eavesdrop, but they spoke of these things in such a guarded manner that Maggie knew there were things she was not being told. All of this about her father and her Uncle John's 'vices' - that was news to her! And now she wanted to know what those 'vices' were. While she had known the Gentlemen had been spending their wealth with no restraint, she had never quite understood what they had spent it on! She eyed each woman in turn now, her pale blue eyes wide and innocent. When the women began shuffling with discomfort and when none of them answered, she frowned. "Well?"
Jane tried hard not to scowl - she'd quite forgotten her daughter was there! There were truths that Maggie - at only eleven years old - was far too young to hear. How could the older women explain to an eleven year old girl that some men liked to wile away their time on gambling, drinking, and whores? How could she tell her precious daughter, who loved her father deeply, that he had chosen a strumpet over Maggie, fled with that strumpet to France, and taken all of his and Jane's wealth with him?
That was the bone deep shame that Jane had to live with every day, the knowledge she refused to share with her daughter and tried to conceal from her peers. Maggie still believed the lie she had been told, that her father was abroad, conducting family business for Edward Tavington. As a blood relative, he had represented the family in this manner for many years, and so it was not so difficult to maintain the falsehood - with Maggie, and with Jane's acquaintances.
That her husband had abandoned her for a doxy was known only to a select few.
"It's one of those things you will understand when you're older," Jane said, patting her daughter's hand as she chose the easy way out.
"Oh, I detest those!" Maggie slumped in her seat and twisted her lips in distaste.
"So did I, when I was your age," Eleanor said. "Though I sometimes wish I was eleven again, sometimes understanding is worse than ignorance."
Being the clever girl that she was, Margaret frowned, sensing the deeper meaning in her cousin's words. Rose kicked Eleanor's leg with her foot, shooting her daughter a hard scowl. Eleanor drew a sharp breath of pain, but her mother's warning had been heard loud and clear. She snapped her mouth shut. Satisfied that her daughter would make no further comments that might rouse Maggie's suspicions, Rose shifted her gaze to the view again.
They were just turning off Cheapside into the narrower Wood Street, and after a short journey the carriage turned into the broader Gresham Street. This was to be where they would live. For how long, the family had no inkling. The buildings on either side of the broad street were tall, imposing structures made of brick and stone. They were all three or four stories, with the front door and steps exiting almost directly onto the footpath. The street was bustling with people and wildlife - horses pulling carriages, cats and dogs scrounging for food, people selling wares from carts or just walking along the street on business of their own. Again she caught sight of William, trotting alongside the carriage on his large black mare. He stared ahead blindly, as though he loathed to acknowledge the street which had become his new home. His handsome features were set in a deadpan, emotionless expression. Rose sighed, feeling pity for her son.
If only I'd married Edward, not John, Rose thought. They'd not be in their current dilemma now, if she'd married the more responsible of the two sons, their future happiness would have been secure. But despite Edward being the heir to the Tavington family business and Estate, Rose had chosen John, for she had been quite in love with him. That love had blinded her to his faults, however. It was 'love' that landed her and her children in the quagmire they were in now. Rose - a widow at forty-one years of age, thanks to her husband drinking and whoring himself to an early grave. Which was why, as she'd said earlier, she would not allow Eleanor to make the same mistake.
They began to slow when they reached a particularly large, four story, red brick and stone building. The broad building was divided into many tall, narrow apartments. On the ground floor of each apartment, there was an arched entrance set in its precise centre, with a large window on either side. The door itself was set in an alcove, with steps exiting directly onto the footpath. Each of the upper levels sported three, tall windows across the front - three windows for each level.
Paul Dawson, one of the servants they had been able to maintain in their employ, stopped the carriage in front of the apartment that was to be theirs.
"We're here then?" Maggie asked, almost bouncing on her seat to gain a better view. Her dark hair was coming free of her bonnet again, a long stray black tendril that framed one side of her face and continually dropped into her eyes. She blew at it absently and the tendril puffed away. Her pale blue eyes were bright with excitement, she was the only one in the family who thought this was a grand adventure.
"We are," William replied, having heard Margaret from his seat in the saddle. "I know its not much to look at and its certainly not as large or as luxurious as the manor back in Liverpool, nor are the gardens so grand, but it is home now."
"Home is what you make it, darling," Rose assured her son. He smiled as he dismounted in order to open the small door and assist the women of his family out, one by one. While Mr. Dawson climbed down and began retrieving the last of their luggage, William led the women into the alcove, up the short flight of steps and on into the house.
Their furnishings were already in place, Rose saw with pleasure, though she had anticipated as much. William had even placed their precious oil paintings on the walls. Although the house was small, at least it would be luxuriously appointed. If she went upstairs to the bed chambers, she suspected she would find the beds already made with fresh clean linen, for Miss Jilly Blair, the second servant they could afford to keep, had already moved from Liverpool to London. Miss Jilly was fastidious and Rose felt certain she would have been working day and night to help establish the house to William's exacting standards.
With a sigh, Rose unlaced her bonnet and removed it, placing it on a hook on the wall near the front door. The other women did likewise, removing their capes and hanging them before stepping deeper into the house. As expected, there was a small drawing room to the left of the foyer and a small dining hall to the right. Further toward the back of the house would be the kitchen and bathing room. A slim flight of stairs took up much of the foyer, leading up to the second and third levels - to the bedchambers.
They were luckier than most, Rose knew. The family would each have their own small chamber, no one would need to share. Still, she tried not to calculate how many times the entirety of this small apartment would fit into the mansion which had been their home in Liverpool.
Possibly eight times…
No, no use thinking of it! She pushed the thought aside and, noticing William's apprehensive look, she smiled brightly at her son.
"It's wonderful," she assured him. "Cosy. I dare say we will not have to spend much on wood to keep it heated during winter!"
"No," William confirmed. "And it's not far to the markets, where we can purchase produce cheaply. I do fear that none of you will be able to purchase new dresses and the like for a short while - perhaps not for a few years."
"I've taken care of that already," Rose informed him. "I had new dresses, stockings, ribbons, capes, bonnets, a full wardrobe for each of us commissioned. Including a ball gown, though I doubt we'll ever have the opportunity to wear them now."
"You will," William said firmly, raising his chin with pride. "My father might have marred our good name amongst our peers, but I'll be damned if we hide under a rock because of it. No - we shall show ourselves, I will not allow us to be forgotten - or pushed aside!"
He said it with such bitter conviction, that Rose sighed heavily, her heart going out to him. In some ways, she felt their fall from grace had struck William the hardest of them all.
"So," he said now as the women began taking seats around the small drawing room. "You had your clothing commissioned, and presented father with the bill? And he paid it - just like that?"
"I had clothing commissioned for you also," Rose said. "And oh, yes, of course he did! Your father was quite generous when it comes down to it. Overly generous, at times."
Tavington snorted and curled his lip, his smile both deriding and sinister.
"It's quite true, young William," Jane put in as she smoothed her skirts. "If he was not, would he have allowed Maggie and I to come live with you when my husband..." she trailed off for a moment and cast Maggie a quick glance. "When Edward sent Nicholas to France on business?"
William's eyes flickered to Maggie, his glance so fleeting that the young girl did not see it. Nor did she suspect they were speaking around the issue of Mr. Woodhouse's true purpose in France - living with his strumpet as he spent his way through his and Jane's wealth.
"I suppose father had some good qualities," he said disdainfully. "Though if he cared for his family as much as all that, he would not have squandered our fortune and destroyed our good name."
Rose lowered her eyes, feeling wretched. How she was supposed to defend her husband to her son, she did not know. She didn't even know why she should - or why she wanted too. There it was, however - a deep seated need to defend her husband - but not for John's sake. For William's. Perhaps he would not feel so bitter and betrayed, if he could see the good in his father.
"Yes, your father was generous," she began now and William's face instantly darkened. Rose realised belatedly that defending John was not the way to lift her boys spirits. She wracked her brains, trying to think of the best way to make William feel a little less worried about their plight. And just like that, she had it. But it would mean admitting - and explaining - how she had managed to siphon away money by hoodwinking John. So far she had kept the knowledge mostly to herself for it shamed her to be so cunning and sly, but now she sensed that William would be quite amused by her tactics.
"He did pay for the clothing, as soon as I presented him with the invoice," Rose continued. "You may not like hearing that your father was a generous man, but he was that all the same. Too generous by far, as I said. He was a bit of a pushover, if truth be told. Too many of his 'friends' needed only to put their hands out, cry poor and stupid John would 'loan' them as much as they needed. These 'loans' were never paid back, however."
"I know," William scowled. "If only he had kept a ledger of who owed him and how much, I could at least track the profiteering bastards down and demand the loans be paid. Almost fifteen thousand pounds he gave away - just like that!" He clicked his fingers and shook his head, his face a mask of fury.
"Well, I hope you don't look at the ledgers - or at the invoices - too closely," Rose said. It was time to begin the next part of her explanation, the part that involved her fraudulent activities. William frowned at her in askance. "Some of those invoices, William, were drawn up by myself and Jane."
"Why would you do that?" He asked, his fury giving way to curiosity.
"So that I could siphon some of our money away," Rose shrugged. Jane drew in a sharp breath and Rose shrugged again. The two had sworn they would never tell another living soul - only Mr. Paul Dawson who had helped them in their endeavours. "In one instance, I told him that the pianola needed maintenance. He never took an interest in the instrument except when Eleanor sat to play. Not knowing any better, he agreed and Mr. Dawson was able to take it away. He polished it for me and when he returned it a week later, I told your father it had been in sore need of stripping back and new coats of varnish applied. And so it was that I was able to pass a fake invoice of three hundred pounds under his nose - while he was drunk of course. He immediately dipped into his locked safe box and handed me the money. I feel terribly for my deception, but it's three hundred pounds that is now safely in my personal coffers, three hundred pounds that he would have drunk or gambled away."
William stared at his mother and his Aunt with shock, then - as Rose had intended - he began to laugh. A small smile played around the corners of her mouth as she watched him - it was the first true laugh she'd heard from her boy for far too long. She caught Jane's eye and saw understanding dawn across her sister's face. Jane realised what Rose had been about now - revealing what they swore they'd never reveal to anyone who did not need to know.
"How cunning! You should not have stopped at the pianola!" William chuckled. "You could have had the carriage 'refurbished' - he never would have known!" His expression shifted to mock suspicion, "or did you?"
"Well…" Rose said evasively, her smile broadening.
"You didn't!" William slapped his thigh with mirth. "What else did you tell him needed repair that did not? How much did you siphon away?"
He looked so deliriously happy that Rose decided to tell him all of it.
"The oil paintings - I told him they needed cleaning. Mr. Dawson kept them in one of the unused sheds for almost a week, then he wrapped them and bought them back as though he'd collected them from the artist. John, as Mr. Dawson hung them, commented on how much brighter and more vibrant they looked."
"I had such a hard time not laughing," Jane added. "I think we earned eighty pounds from that venture."
"And indeed - there was the carriage," Rose continued. "Though that was indeed reupholstered, I forged another invoice - John never saw the original."
"Your forged invoice stated a higher cost than the original?" Eleanor asked. Though she was laughing, her tone was scandalised. "I'm not certain how to feel about this! Who knew we had such rogues in the family!"
"As I said," Rose defended herself primly, "it was either that or he would have drunk it away, or 'loaned' it to some miscreant and we'd never have seen the money again."
"And he believed you?" William was incredulous. Both at his father's idiocy and his mother's tenacity. He was proud of her however - the Lord knew his mother was correct - his father would have spent the money on doxies, if his mother had not sidled it away.
"Yes, he was drunk most of the time... Oh, I can't think of any more instances just now, but I used this ploy plenty of times. I'd present him with an 'invoice' as though it was from a proper merchant or refurbisher and he would give me the money. The figure would be written into the ledgers of course, so if he bothered to check he'd be able to trace it. I feared he'd accuse me of stealing otherwise. Which I was, of course," Rose blushed crimson, thoroughly ashamed of herself. It was a disgraceful thing to do, stealing from ones own husband, but the situation had forced her to do it and she had no regrets. It was relaying it to her children - and to her niece - that had her embarrassed.
"Some of that was your dowry to begin with," Eleanor said. "Yes - as the husband, father owned our wealth but honestly! One could accuse him of stealing from us!"
"Yes, he certainly stole my inheritance," William agreed thoroughly. "And your dowry, Ellie. Leaving us with five thousand apiece when you should have had twenty, while I inherited the rest - and the share in the Tavington business! But it's gone and I can't say that hearing of Mamma's swindling has upset me in the slightest. Did you manage this tactic on Uncle Nicholas, as well?" He asked Jane, who nodded.
"Though not as often, as his wealth was less than your fathers, and he was a little more astute. When we bought things back into our house, he inspected them too thoroughly to make certain the refurbisher did an exceptional job. Oh, do you remember, Rose?" Jane turned to her sister. "When we had Mr. Dawson take away my writing table, to be lacquered and the gold gilding applied?"
"Oh, yes," Rose gasped. "We had Mr. Dawson polish it like we had him do all the other furnishings but Nicholas had been expecting the piece to be returning with new gold gilding, as Jane said. When he inspected it, he said the gilding had not been touched at all - and of course it hadn't been - but we'd itemised it on the invoice as though it had been done. He was far too demanding and exacting, he threatened to give the refurbisher a 'piece of his mind', for trying to dupe us. Well - you can imagine how we panicked!"
"Because, of course, it had been in Mr. Dawson's care for the entire time it was gone!" Jane laughed.
"How did you get out of it?" William asked incredulously.
"Well, Nicholas was drunk - half of his ranting and raving was because he'd had too much wine," Jane said as she remembered her husband, bending over the table and stumbling about as he inspected the lacquer and gilding. "When he sobered, he had forgotten the entire incident. I didn't try to have him pay for that invoice - and from then on we were much more careful of him than we were your father."
"I don't know how I feel about this either!" Maggie squeaked. "I didn't even know you could hoodwink money from a person in such a way!"
"Yes, mother, how did you learn of such methods?" William asked with a sly smile.
"My fault, I'm afraid, Mr. Tavington," Mr. Dawson said as he entered and bobbed his head in respectful greeting. "Your mother knew of my misspent youth and when I overheard her speaking with Mrs. Woodhouse one afternoon, the two of them wishing there was a way they could hoard some of their money for a rainy day, like, I felt free to make the suggestion."
"Is that right?" William asked, surprised. "It's a good thing you're so loyal, Mr. Dawson! Or do I need to lock away my jewellery - my pocket watch, and rings?"
"Yes, and the silver cutlery," Eleanor laughed.
"Nah, nah - those days are long since over," Mr. Dawson smiled, not offended in the slightest by the youngsters teasing. "Lord - I was a lad of twenty when your father took me into his employ! And I never did another illegal thing until I saw what a quandary Mrs. Tavington and Mrs. Woodhouse were in. My bones are too old for the cold dungeons now, so I reckon your valuables are safe with me."
"Never doubted it," William announced. "Thank you for assisting Mamma and my Aunt - if you'd been caught out…"
He trailed off, each of them understanding the sacrifice Mr. Dawson had made to help salvage a small amount from the wreckage. If the servant had been discovered of colluding with his mistress to steal from his master, he certainly would have found himself in one of London's dungeon cells.
"I've bought your small cases in," Mr. Dawson said before the silence became uncomfortable. "I'll drive the carriage around to the back and bring the larger ones in."
"Very good, I'll help you when you're ready," William offered and Mr. Dawson bowed again, then retreated quietly.
William began to brood again. His face darkened as he thought of his father's excess, of how his selfishness had altered their lives forevermore. And how even Mr. Dawson had tried to help them - a servant, for Christ's sake! Suddenly restless, he rose to his feet and walked stiffly across the room to the fireplace. Once there, he leaned against the mantle on his arm and stared darkly into the unlit grate.
"Father deserved it," he curled his lip, the last vestiges of humour dying away as bitter fury settled in once more. "As you said, he'd only have squandered it on drink and doxies. And by giving it away to anyone who asked - they all knew he was foolish enough to loan it away. Some bastards out there have their pockets stuffed filled with our money. I know he loaned Mr. Blake two thousand pounds but Blake swears black and blue he paid it back. Even if that's true, I see nothing generous about father loaning out our fortune - even if he was kind enough to take Aunt Jane and Maggie in. He was a damned bastard and he's destroyed our entire lives."
Rose and Jane exchanged a glance behind William's back. Rose didn't take her son to task over his cursing, he was the man of the house now after all. It had been a difficult time for them all, but for William most of all. As he grew older, he had begun to challenge his father on the senior Tavington's behaviour and the two had had many brawls over it. Proper brawls too - punches had been thrown, bruises and fat lips received. As gentle and generous as John was with his womenfolk, he'd had a temper and he never tolerated his son's challenges.
Over the years, William had been helpless to do anything but watch as his father spent through their fortune. The frustration and the violence had honed and sharpened William into quite a cold and hard man for his years. Lord, he was only twenty-two, for goodness sake! And yet he'd had to bear the brunt of their troubles since a far younger, more tender age.
Rose had tried to cheer him, and it had worked for all of five minutes! While William resembled his mother outwardly, he had inherited his father's temper and Rose knew that if she did not snap him out of his mood, he would spend the rest of the day glaring darkly into the fire place.
"Stop this worrying, William," she said sharply, suddenly out of patience. "You have your inheritance -"
"A measly five thousand pounds!" William raged. "It should have been twenty, at least!"
"Do not interrupt me, boy, I taught you better than that! Now sit down!" Rose said crossly, her eyebrows knitted down with irritation. William tightened his lips and stared coldly at his mother, who glared right back, not backing down an inch.
"Yes, Mamma," he said after a moments silence, then resumed his seat meekly.
"As I was saying, you have your five thousand. I have the money Jane and I siphoned away. We each have a small amount left over from our mother's Estate, also. Not much, but if it is all pooled together, then we shall not starve any time soon. We won't need for anything this year - with our commissioned clothing and the like. Yes, we have been bought to our knees and the Tavington name has suffered much damage. But we are Parkers, as well, and I'll not allow a single one of our peers to forget it, no matter how they might wish to distance themselves. What we need to discuss now, is how to make ourselves stronger, and earn our position back in Society. We need to make strong connections with those who are still willing to ally themselves with us. Mrs. Tennant -"
"Marriage again, Mamma?" William cut her off sharply, his tone scathing.
"To secure this families on going happiness and security, yes, William! Marriage! You have to be married sometime, I do not know why you are so resistant to this! With our peers all but heading for the hills, avoiding us as though we have the plague, your options for a decent match are few and far between! Not if you wish to marry a woman of any consideration! Mrs. Tennant is still considering her daughter Caroline for you -"
"Agh, Mamma!" William growled.
"Stop interrupting me, William!" Rose raged. "There is nothing wrong with the girl! She has twenty thousand pounds! Her father is a Baronet! Certainly, he is not of the Peerage but we can't hope to marry that high just now! Thanks to my friendship with Mrs. Tennant, they are still willing to consider a marriage connection between you and Caroline, despite how far this family has fallen! I assure you, Mr. Tennant is one of the few who would! Marriage between you and Caroline would go a long way in raising us back up again!"
"We shall see," William said as noncommittally as he always did when the subject arose. "What of you, Ellie? Is Mamma brow beating you to find a decent, affluent husband?"
"Don't be absurd, she is only sixteen!" Rose said in outrage before Eleanor could draw breath to answer. "But know this, William. If you don't make a match with Caroline - then it will be impossible for me to find a Gentleman of any consideration who would be willing to marry Eleanor!"
A heavy silence descended, broken only by Rose's sharp breathing. Wiping her hands on her skirts as though shifting imaginary dust gave her something to do while she struggled to get herself under control. She did not like to lose her temper but nor was she surprised that she'd done so, their circumstances being what they were. It was disheartening, frustrating, and downright loathsome to be cast from Society as they had been, and it seemed to her as though she was the only one who could see their path back in again. It all depended on William…
Who had already sacrificed so much, she reminded herself. Jane, Maggie and Eleanor exchanged wary glances, uncomfortable to be caught in the crossfire of William and Rose's confrontation. William was glaring at his mother, who still struggled to contain herself. She understood that shouting at her son would have no effect - he must be handled carefully, for he had become as wild and unpredictable with his temper as a wolf.
"William," she began as mildly as she could - even then, her voice came out strained and crisp. She met his gaze and felt certain he could read her fury and frustration, no matter how she tried to smooth her expression. "My darling, I know you have already sacrificed so much. You've been denied your birthright, you've become the head of the family but do not have the means to keep us as we are accustomed."
Some of William's fury eased, Rose was gratified to see, and she began to hope she was on the right track.
"You must know how grateful I am, how grateful we all are," she included the other women in her family in this statement and they nodded quickly, even little Maggie. "That you would put yourself through Oxford, studying a subject that holds no interest to you, to pursue a career that will provide for us. You've given so much, and I'm sorry to demand more from you. But surely you must see why I am pushing you toward this marriage match?"
William heaved a sullen sigh. He nodded however, for he did indeed see exactly how marrying Miss Tennant would put their family on the road to their former glory.
"It rankles, that my choices are so limited now," William confided softly. "It rankles that I must marry lower to raise us higher again, when we already had considerable standing. We held a higher rank than the Tennants! But now we must rely on them? There was a time when they would have been deliriously grateful to me for marrying their daughter!"
"Be that as it may," Rose said bluntly, "our position has been greatly altered and it is we who should be grateful to the Tennants now. William, is there another who holds your affections?"
"Mamma!" William glared at Rose. "I fail to see how that is any of your business!"
"Of course it's my business," she scoffed. "You are not in a position to marry for love, but if there is a woman you admire, then you must at least tell me so now - you need not mention her name."
"There is not," William scowled, infuriated with his mother for her prying. He did have a lover, of course, but while he felt affection for her - and a sort of possession - she was far too lowly born to ever consider marrying - no matter how far his family had fallen.
"If that is the case, then there is nothing to stop you from marrying Miss Tennant," Rose said firmly. "I do not need to list her accomplishments - for Eleanor grew up with her, and you know her well. What I do need to stipulate, is how important a connection between our two families is. I'm sorry to off load more onto your already burdened shoulders, William - but a simple fact is a simple fact. If you don't marry well - into the only family who is still willing to ally themselves with us - then our standing will remain where it is now and my chances of securing a decent match for Eleanor will be greatly diminished."
Another silence descended, this time only broken by Tavington as he ground his teeth with frustration. He glanced at his sister, who stared at her hands, a bright blush on her cheeks that told him how sorrowful she was feeling, that he would be forced to marry a woman he didn't want, just to secure her happiness.
"You're my sister, Ellie," he said to her now. "And I only want what's best for you - and for Maggie also. I will consider Caroline, but Mamma -" he turned to his mother. "I have no wish to discuss this further just now."
"William -" Rose began - clearly thinking of pushing her point.
"Enough!" Tavington snapped and threw up his hands. "I have no desire to discuss this further!"
Rose fell quiet instantly. William was the head of the house now after all and he had given her a command - and she would obey him. He sighed heavily and rose from the chaise. Squatting down by the fire grate, he began stacking twigs and branches, preparing to light it.
Just then, the front door crashed open and a particularly tall man rushed into the house.
"Mamma!" He called, stopping dead, searching first the dinning room, before whirling to search the parlor. Rose was already on her feet, a smile lighting her face, her woes with William seemingly forgotten as she glided quickly across the room to greet her other son - Stephen Evans.
Of course, Stephen was not truly Rose's son, but he had been in hers and John's custody since infancy. That he was one of the family was not even a question, for Rose certainly considered him her son. The handsome, tall young man was the illegitimate son of one Lord Charles Cornwallis, Earl. Stephen was the result of an ill-conceived liaison with one of the maids in the Earl's household, one Miss Nita Evans.
As it would have broken Lady Jemima's heart if she'd discovered her husband had been unfaithful, Charles Cornwallis had never acknowledged the boy publicly - in order to leave his wife in blissful ignorance. He'd always had honorable intentions toward his son, however. For instance, when he discovered Miss Evans was with child, he was quite chivalrous and placed the young woman in her own apartment, with a maid of her own, and a small income to help support her as she raised their babe. He intended that, when the babe was born, he would continue to support his son or daughter, ensuring a decent marriage match and dowry for a girl, or career opportunity for a boy, when the time came.
Tragically, Miss Evans died giving birth to Stephen and suddenly, Cornwallis' carefully laid plans for his child came to an abrupt halt. He was loathe to put the boy in an orphanage, but he still refused to acknowledge Stephen publicly, which would have allowed him to raise the boy himself. As always - his beloved Jemima came first and Charles knew he needed to find another way. Another woman to raise his boy - a woman he regarded, respected, trusted above all others.
He beseeched his life long friend, Mrs. Rose Tavington, to take the boy in. John Tavington was only too happy to agree - for he understood that receiving the gratitude of an Earl was no small thing. Rose's motivation for agreeing was not to earn the Earl's gratitude or strengthen their connection, for the Parker's had been closely linked to the Cornwallis' for generations - the two even shared a common great - great - grandsire. No, she was happy to comply because her close friend was in a bind. Charles needed her desperately and she'd never refuse such a plea. Furthermore, she had recently given birth to William and it pleased her that hers and Charles' two boys might be raised as brothers.
Her decision proved fruitful. Stephen and William were close as brothers could be, and Stephen still lived with them even now, at age twenty-one. He had been helping William with the move from Liverpool to London and Rose knew he was already ensconced in one of the bedchambers upstairs.
Though only a select handful outside the family knew who Stephen's father was, the Earl had taken his responsibility toward his son seriously for just over two decades. He had given Rose a quarterly stipend for Stephen's keep all these years, and had more recently paid for the youth's admittance into Oxford. Stephen was to attend the College alongside William, he was to study Law also.
Stephen grinned broadly. Rose presented her cheek for him to kiss, which he did, before wrapping his arms around her bodily and lifting her into an all consuming embrace. She laughed, having come to expect such exuberance from the tall lad.
"You're as beautiful as ever, Mamma," he announced as he set her back on her feet.
"And you are as impetuous," she scolded lightly and patted his jacket, trying to smooth the creases with her fingers. "And as unkempt as alway. Did you sleep in this?"
"Agh - Miss Jilly has had enough on her hands without worrying about ironing my coat," Evans announced. "Ellie! Maggie! Aunt Jane!" he greeted the other women, more embraces and kisses all around. They were soon seated again, and speaking of far more cheerful things, such as William and Stephen's expectations for College, which they were to begin attending by the end of the week.
Eventually the eleven year old Margaret Woodhouse began to grow restless and she left the adults to explore the apartment where she would now be living. She began with the rear of the house, peeking into the office, kitchen and bathing room. Miss Jilly was hard at work already, preparing what was needful for dinner that evening. Maggie chatted with the pretty maid for a short time, she even helped to peel the potatoes though Jilly admonished her to be careful of her dress - she was still wearing her silks, after all.
Maggie eventually bounded away, almost skipping as she headed toward the stairs. Once on the next landing, she began opening and shutting the bedchamber doors, identifying immediately which chamber would belong to whom, based on the belongings she found in them. She found hers last and began inspecting the chamber with a healthy curiosity. It was far smaller than her chamber at the manor in Liverpool, but she didn't mind. The bed was hers - having been transported a few days ago. She sat on the edge of the bed now, then with a quiet cry of shock, she sprang back up again. Something moved beneath the blankets and she stared as the largest, scruffiest grey ball of fluff she'd ever seen began to emerge from beneath the coverlet.
The large grey cat crawled out from the coverlet and then 'meowed' up at Maggie, who let out another squeal - of delight this time. The mangy cat was certainly not poorly fed - for when Maggie scooped him up in her arms, she struggled beneath his weight. He was content enough to be carried about, as Maggie stepped out of her room and made her way downstairs. She appeared at the parlor door with a huge smile, almost stumbling under the weight of the huge, grey ball of fluff.
"Maggie!" Jane shrieked, jumping up from her seat. She waggled her finger at her daughter crossly. "Put that mangy cat down - you don't know where its been!"
"Its not mangy and of course I know where its been! Living upstairs, that's where!" Margaret adjusted the dead weight draped in her arms, his purring could be heard across the room. "Can I keep him? He must come with the house, you can't evict the poor cat from its own house!"
"Ah, yes," William spoke up. "I almost forgot about the damned cat. I keep trying to put him out but he keeps getting back in."
"See? It's his house! Thats why he won't leave. Can I keep him?" Margaret had one arm beneath the cat, the other over the top and continually adjusted his weight as he slid in her hold.
"No!" Jane exclaimed. "Look at him - I dare say he's covered with sores!"
"He's not! He just needs to be combed, thats all. I think I'll call him -"
"No!" The women all cried as one - even Eleanor, though she was laughing. Rose continued, "if you name him, then he'll be yours and we'll never be able to get rid of him!"
"Mr. Whimms!" Margaret exclaimed. Latching onto Rose's declaration, the young girl said the first thing that popped into her head in order to keep the cat. "There, he's named now, he's mine!"
"Oh, sweet Lord above..." Jane slumped back in her seat with defeat. Maggie however, sat down on the floor and pulled a comb from her pockets to begin grooming the monstrous cat, who sat placidly in her lap.
"She's using her own comb," Jane moaned, feeling faint. Rose patted her sister's hand in commiseration.
Over the next few weeks, the family slowly became accustomed to their new life.
Stephen and William began their studies at Oxford. While both youths found their classes a bore, they attended with diligence. Initially, William had harbored concerns that he would be shunned because of his father's debaucheries, but this was far from the case. He was introduced to Gentlemen from both wealthy families and middling, youths from from the Peerage - whose father's were Dukes, Earls and Barons, as well those whose family were wealthy but in trade, therefore not of the peerage. He and Stephen became quite popular, especially with three young men in particular.
Banastre Tarleton, a young man who - much like Tavington - had also received a small inheritance upon his father's death. He was one of the youths who came from a wealthy trade family and had no connections to the peerage. This did not bother Stephen and William at all, for while Stephen's father was an Earl, he could hardly claim to it, being illegitimate and unacknowledged. And William - his ties to the peerage were thin indeed - through his late great grandmother, Lady Windrum the Baroness.
Then there was the very affluent, Irish born, Hon. Francis Rawdon, who was born to the Peerage. His father was a Baron and his mother, a Baroness. Lastly was the equally affluent English born, Hon. Philip Bordon, who was also the child of a Baron and Baroness. Philip was the third born son, however while Francis was the only child, and heir apparent.
Despite the vast differences in their births and financial situations, the five young Gentlemen became fast friends. They held similar interests and as each of them had an athletic nature, they soon grew bored of sitting in on their classes, finding other pursuits instead. They often spent time playing cricket instead of attending college. Rawdon and Bordon frequently invited the young men to their respective country homes, where they would stay for days on end, riding horses and hunting game.
And chasing women. That soon became their favourite pastime. They attended balls, danced the night away with the daughters of the Peerage - though of course these encounters hardly ever led to a more fulfilling or profound experience. For the daughters of the Nobility were - mostly - quite protective of their virtue. In order to find more adventurous women who would indeed give the fellows what they truly wanted, they began to attend exclusive clubs. These clubs were the perfect places - they offered every diversion a young Gentleman could possibly desire. Gaming tables, drink, connections to other likeminded Gentlemen and above all else - adventurous women.
Their favourite haunt soon became The Cocoa Tree Club and not a night went by that the Gentlemen did not grace the establishment with their presence.