I am sitting in my chamber which overlooks the gardens behind the house. At this season, the leaves are beginning to bud, and primroses and Lenten lilies grow in the formal knots that are so neatly trimmed by the gardener’s boy. The yellow of their petals seems brighter on this damp, drizzling day, and contrasts with the dark green leaves of the box hedges that surround them. Yellow is the colour of spring, as purple is the colour of high summer, but today all the world is coloured in mourning, and I am bereft.
Tom, my Tom, my lovely, loving, kind, beloved husband, is dead. He went to Bury a fortnight ago, though there was much fever abroad in the town, and was caught in a heavy fall of rain on the way home. At first his illness seemed to be a slight chill, or a head cold, but it rapidly became worse, settling on his lungs, and in just over a week, despite all that I or the physician could do, he died in the bed we shared, his hot hand holding mine, his breathing so desperate and painful and laboured that in the end it was almost a mercy when it stopped, and I knew that the dear Lord had taken my husband from me, and their father from our children.
It is their questions that I find hardest to bear. Our eldest daughter is but eight years old: William, six, Moll five, Henrietta four, Penelope three and little Dilly, the youngest, will be two next week. Tom would tease me sweetly about our five daughters, how their names were the same as mine and my own sisters, and express the hope that when they grew, they would be as happy and beautiful as their namesakes. How he delighted in them, and in his handsome son, the only one to live, but a fine boy who reminds me so much of my long-dead, much loved brother. I had hoped that another would be born to us, but that now will never be. My five girls and my vigorous, healthy boy are all that I have left of my Tom: they, and my memories, so tender and loving, and the brief lock of his hair which I snipped from his head before they put him in his coffin, and which I have placed now in the locket which he gave me, alongside his picture in little. It is very like him, I think sadly, gazing at it, and the artist has captured that sweet smile which first snared my heart when I was fourteen. I am just thirty one years old, so more than half my life has been spent loving him, and now I am a widow.
“Where is Papa?” they asked, and I told them that he is with the angels in Heaven, and that one day long hence, we will all be together again. That has satisfied the little ones, who do not understand, but William and his older sister demand a different answer, and I cannot give it.
Of course I have often known grief before. The first time it sunk its talons into my heart was when my young brother Tom was so tragically killed. Then I lost my first three children, so that I wondered if there was some blight upon my husband and myself, or that we had somehow, in some way, incurred God’s displeasure. That the six who followed them are all thriving does not mean that I have forgotten the babes who lie under the chancel of our church: they will live in my heart for ever, as will my sister Harriet, who died along with her still-born daughter more than five years ago, and my sister Dilly, dead of a consumption two years later: and most recently my father, who left us hardly a year since, and is now reunited with his dear son, having never recovered from Precious Tom’s tragic death.
But this, this is different. I thought that I would enjoy a marriage as long, and as happy, as that of my parents, who were together for more than forty years before my father died. Was I foolish? Perhaps, but I think it is better to assume that one’s life will be full of joy and fulfilment, than to contemplate the future in a mood of gloom and despondency. For I have often noticed that those who think that all the world conspires against them are confirmed in their opinion by what happens to them, whereas people who have a sunnier and more optimistic disposition find that their lives reflect their nature.
I am a widow. But yet I have so much to be thankful for. I have the love of my remaining sisters, Mary and Pen, though Pen is far away in Shropshire, nursing her baby son, having at last found a man she considers worthy of her love. Mary, who is now living in our old home, has been a great comfort, and her husband has given much practical help in the first days when, overcome with grief, I could do little but weep. I can also depend on Tom’s younger brother Jack, who deceptively gives the appearance of only being interested in hunting and cards and other such pleasant pursuits. He will assist me in the running of the estate, even though he has lands and a wife and children of his own. He is two years younger than Tom, and has a very different character, but I have always been fond of him, and know him to be honest and fair in his dealings.
And of course, more than any of these, I can be thankful for my beloved children.
It is Will who comes to me, Will with his golden hair and soft brown eyes, and I see the anxious expression in them, and my heart fills anew with love and grief, for he is so like Tom, not only his father, but like the uncle he never knew, killed years before he was born. But I must be strong for my boy, and put aside my own sorrow so that I may better deal with his.
“Mama, will we stay here in this house now that Papa is ... is gone?” I have already noticed that he cannot utter the word ‘dead’, and neither can his older sister, for unlike the little ones, they both know the finality of its meaning.
The question is surprising. “Of course we will,” I assure him. “Why should we not? This is our home.”
“But ...” He glances round to his older sister, who stands a little further away, her normally happy, carefree demeanour now grown hunched and tense, as if she fears punishment. She nods very slightly, encouragingly, and he continues in a rush. “But I heard Sam the stable boy talking, when I was giving a piece of sugar to my pony, and he said that there were bound to be changes here now that there is a new master.” His eyes fill with tears. “Mama, does that mean we have to leave?”
Glad that I can assuage his fears, I smile at him, and draw them both close into my embrace. “No, Will, I can tell you that for certain. Do you know who the new master is?”
He shakes his head, but his sister, older and quicker to get my meaning, takes in a deep breath.
I say gently, “Will, the new master is you.”
“Me?” He looks dumbfounded, while my daughter gives him a little nudge, and a look of superior exasperation which it pains me to witness.
“Yes, Will. This house is yours, and you will never have to leave it. You are the fourth Baronet, so you are now Sir William.”
“Am I? Sir William? Like a knight?”
“A baronet is addressed as ‘sir’, as a knight also is, but the titles are different. If you are knighted, your son does not inherit the title. If you are a baronet, then so will your son be. The first King Charles made your great-grandfather William a Baronet, your grandfather was the second, and your dear Papa was the third.”
“Oh.” He mulls this over for a while, frowning. Then he says, more cheerfully, “So if I’m the master here now, I can order my sisters about, and they will have to obey.”
His sister present utters a disgusted noise. She says indignantly, “I do not have to do as you say. I must do as Mama says, but not as you say.”
“And I say,” I tell them, intervening calmly but firmly, “that such squabbling is unseemly at any time, leave alone a time like this. Remember what has happened. I do not think Papa would be pleased to see you at odds over such childish things. You are now the man of the house, Will, and must behave with due decorum. And that goes for you also,” I add, turning to his sister, who flushes with shame and studies her shoes. I cannot blame them for being so overwrought, as indeed I am, but I do not need a nursery full of bickering children. So I show them my locket, with their father’s picture and his lock of hair, and my daughter, her face brightening, says, “Will you put it in your casket, Mama?”
Oh, my casket, my treasure chest of memories and mementoes, from which I have gained so much comfort during times of grief. I smile at her. “Yes, I will.”
“Can I fetch it, Mama? I know where it is, and I’ll be very, very careful of it, I promise. You can help me, Will.”
So the children go to the chest below the window. It is heaped with cushions, and they carefully remove these, piling them up on the sill, before lifting the lid. Together they lift out the wooden box that contains it, and bring it over to my table.
Since babyhood, all my children have loved the casket, and it is their great delight to see it and look inside. I remember when Will and she were small, and I had to ensure that their hands were clean before they could touch it. Now, of course, they understand its value, and how precious it is to me, so they treat it with great care and respect. Since they were old enough, I have told them stories about the places and people whose images adorn it, and they know that the lovely golden brown spaniel on the panel depicting Smell is their Papa’s Sorrel, whom my daughter can just remember as a very old dog. He and I would delight the children with tales about her, how he had trained her to obey his hand signals, and examples of her loving nature and keen intelligence. And I cannot help but glance at Sorrel’s great-grandaughter, Sukey – all the names of her kin begin with the letter ‘S’ – who lies unhappily on the floor by my feet, sensing my misery and grief, even though she is unable to understand it.
I lift the casket out of its container, and open one of the drawers. Within are the three golden lockets which contain hair from each of my dead babes, and I let Will put his father’s alongside them, once we all three have kissed it and said a brief prayer. For a moment, we are each struggling with our tears, and I think we will all three give way to our grief, but then my daughter says, “I love your casket, Mama. It is the most beautiful thing in the whole world. I wish my stitches were as fine as yours.”
“I was rather older than you when I began,” I point out. “And I was fifteen before I finished it. One day, if you practise your sewing, your embroidery will be just as fine.” I say this with as much conviction as I can, for she does not show much aptitude for stitching and the sampler on which she is presently working is permanently creased and grubby, the reverse thick with loose ends.
“I love it too,” says Will. “I like the stories it tells. The lion is the best. Have you ever seen a lion, Mama?”
“No, to my great regret, I have not, but your uncle Tom went to the menagerie at the Tower of London when he was a boy, and he described the lions to me.”
“And they roared very loudly and smelled very high,” says my daughter with a smile, and I smile in return, for as well as being the receptacle of our family’s stories, my casket also has an ability to bring comfort and hope in a way that seems almost magical. With its help, and the help of all our family and friends, we will survive our grief, becoming stronger and more united for it. And one day, please God, we will find happiness again.