I knew, when I married my second husband, that most likely I would outlive him. I was, of course, nearly thirty years his junior, and in the natural order of things he would die before me, though he was fit, hale and hearty, with the energy of a man half his age.
But not like this. Not in a ridiculous, pointless accident that inevitably brought to mind the fateful fall of the ship's mast that put an end to my beloved, precious brother Tom.
He had gone out, as has been his habit for many years, to visit his tenants in the village and those surrounding. His steward accompanied him, and a servant. All was well, and they were returning home, when his horse shied and threw him against the iron gates of the park. It did not seem to him at first that his injuries were serious, and he remounted and continued to the house. But only a few hours later the pains in his body began, and the shortness of breath. He lingered for several days, while his agony increased, and then, with his family beside him and his hand in mine, he died. And for the second time in my life, I am bereft, not only of a husband, but of a home.
Of course, I am not the only one to be grieving his loss. The children of his first wife must have the chief claim to mourn him. His eldest son Thomas died young, leaving a widow, Delariviere, daughter of my sister Dilly, and so my niece, and every part of her even more fierce and strong-willed than her mother. She turned Catholic when she married, and like many converts, she is passionate for her chosen religion, and her belief will not admit of compromise. Her first son is just fifteen years old, and has inherited the baronetcy, becoming Sir Thomas. He is very much under her rule, while the two younger boys, William and Ned, have more spark and character and will, I suspect, be more difficult for her to govern. Then there is my other stepson, Johnny, his wife and sons, and my six stepdaughters, three married, two who never will, and another who is a nun in Bruges. All, of course, are Catholic, and I am not: and neither are my daughters, despite my niece's efforts. And she has made it very plain to me, even before my husband was buried, that she is now lady here, and that we are no longer welcome. I knew she did not like or trust me, but I had not thought she would make it so obvious, so soon. I regret to say that I also spoke plain words to her, accusing her of a grave lack of feeling, and asking her whether she feared that we would pollute her pure Roman household with our Protestantism. At which her lips tightened, and she made no direct response, save to repeat her request that we leave as soon as we could. So the happy memories of this house have been spoiled, and neither I nor my girls can wait to get away, and leave my niece in full possession.
I will miss this place, and above all the lovely garden which my dear husband and I created, when I return to the manor in which I lived with my beloved Tom, where resides my son Will. He is nearly thirty years of age now, and despite my subtle hints, and the very much less subtle hints of his sister Molly, has still not taken a wife, despite the many local beauties which we both cast in his way. He will be in need of a firm hand to run the house, which is beginning to show signs of neglect, so that any prospective bride will be able to imagine herself overseeing such a well-ordered establishment.
But oh, how I have loved the walks and the flowers here, the moat and the ducks and moorhens upon it, and the verdant groves in the park, and above all the fruit trees which bear his name, and which it was his particular pride and joy to nurture. They are thriving, and bearing delicious fruit late every summer, sweet and juicy and warm straight from the branch, or bottled in spiced syrup to eat in winter. So I have asked Brown, the head gardener, who is almost as grieved at the loss of his master as am I, to graft a dozen young trees for my son, so that they may grow in his orchard, and be a reminder for me of my dear husband.
For although my second marriage was founded on friendship, rather than the passion which brought me and my beloved Tom together, when we were little more than children, it has ripened like the green plums into a deep, rich contentment, with a sprinkling of respect and companionship, and a leavening of laughter, and I could truly say to him, as he lay dying, that I loved him dearly, and he, though then beyond speech, was able to indicate by the expression on his face, and the squeeze of his hand on mine, that he felt the same.
I am bereft, but I have my girls to consider, and happy though we have all been here, now that we know we must leave, our plans are going on with all speed, for I know that my younger girls are desperate to live where they are welcome. Will has sent a couple of wagons for our things, for my husband left his furniture and plate to me, and though I could have exercised my right to take it all, and left Delariviere and her sons seated on benches and hard country chairs, and dining off battered pewter from the servants' hall, yet I am not by nature vindictive, and for the sake of my husband, and for the sake of her mother, my sister Dilly, I have packed up only those pieces of which I, or my girls, are particularly fond.
Will has sent his carriage for us, but my daughters would prefer to ride, though the fact that they are in mourning prevents them. However, grooms will bring our horses back, with our personal maids riding pillion behind them. And then there will be nothing left of us at my second husband's great stone house, and Delariviere will be its undisputed queen.
Good riddance to her, Hen and my Dilly will say, and so will Molly, who during her time there argued many times with her cousin, and was glad to leave. I am not, although I always knew I would be forced to, one day. But I must look forward, not back, and hold my husband and the quiet joys we shared in my heart, until the day we meet again.
My girls are exclaiming in excitement, for the chimneys of the house where they were born are now visible beyond the trees, and as the weary horses plod up the drive, my son Will emerges from within to greet us. His sisters jump from the carriage almost before it has halted, and he hugs them close, and they exclaim in delight. I move more slowly, for I am no longer a lively young girl, and my joints ache in this cold damp weather. But he comes to help me from the carriage with a wide and generous smile, so reminiscent of his father, and there is a golden spaniel frisking round his feet, descendant down many generations of my Tom's beloved Sorrel, who first made me see what manner of man he was, and worthy of my love.
"Mama, it is so good to see you! Are you well? Are you tired after your long journey?" he asks, with a touch of mischief, for it was only seven miles, even though we went by way of Bury so that the horses could be watered and rested. "Let me take your box. Is that your beloved casket? Could you not trust it to anyone else?"
"You know I could not," I say, as he embraces me and kisses me on both cheeks. "It must be guarded with my life." And we laugh, but we both know that if danger threatened, if fire broke out, I would rescue my precious casket before any of my other possessions, even the jewellery I inherited from my mother.
I lean on his arm and look around at the old house where I lived long ago with my Tom. Just then, a shaft of February sunlight breaks through the cloud, and touches its ancient rose-red bricks with warmth and fire, so glorious that I cannot help but feel it is a portent. I was so happy here once, and I know that I will be happy here again, given time. For I will have my son's company, and the company of my daughters, and Molly lives not far away, with her new baby, my first grandchild, born just a few months ago. And Will has asked me to oversee the restoration of his neglected garden, as well as taking over the household, so I will not be idle. And keeping busy, as I discovered long ago, is a sovereign salve for grief.
"Welcome home, Mama," he says, and leads me into the warmth of his hall.