Chapter 6

 

In a household like Fynes, Christmas had to be celebrated in style. Preparations had been underway for weeks.  Even though Harriet and myself were the only residents ‘upstairs’  we were invited down to the kitchens to stir the puddings. Although Harriet liked to be asked, because she remembered that treat as a child, she nevertheless declined. The smells of mincemeats, citrus and many other delectables had been filtering up the ‘back’ stairs for weeks, making my mouth water.

Upstairs, other preparations were taking place. Harriet was following Jackson’s progress closely as he told her how he was checking on the quince brandy he had made in the Autumn.  Oranges were being soaked in rum, ready for making the hot punches that would be served to warm-up cold visitors on arrival.  This rum, I was told, had recently arrived directly from Jamaica.  Port had been laid down weeks before, as had most of the wines, so that the sediment would settle. It was also a time for writing letters and invitations.

These interesting activities had largey kept my mind off the man who’s arrival from India was imminent. When I wandered into the enticing kitchen, the staff delighted in showing me everything – and explaining it all.  I believe they thought we had lived like heathens in Ireland.  This amused me because my father always took great pleasure in the provision and enjoyment of good food and wine.  No doubt as a young man in France, he had witnessed similar grand preparations.

The fear of ‘tempting providence’ seemed to prevent open discussion, but all thoughts were clearly on the advent of the new baby.  A formal announcement had not been made, but everyone seemed to know that Louise was ‘expecting’.   Aunt Em had always been frail and she had had difficulty in  bearing children.  Following the loss of three,  uncle John must have thought that, like his King, he was unlikely to have an heir.  Then Charles had been born to them.  Despite all fears to the contrary he had become a strong and healthy child, and was, naturally the centre of his mother’s life.  Now, after one unsuccessful attempt Charles and Louisa might at last give them a grandchild.

Although delighted, this did nothing to dispel my uncle’s anxieties about the succession of the monarchy.  Even during Christmas itself he brought up the subject.  “Twenty–three healthy children from George III and look at what happened to them!” He would mutter repeatedly.

On Christmas Eve I happened to be sitting beside him.  On the rare occasions that I had met him, he had seemed taciturn and withdrawn, except when talking about matters concerning The Court Of St. James.   I was soon to discover that, in me, he had found  a new listener for his Royal tales.  I had given him an opportunity by mentioning his mother’s love of Bath, ‘in the good old days’:

“She much resents the fact that all the Court followed the Prince Regent to his Pavilion in Brighton,” he revealed, then continued unabated: “Now it is very different; King William does not take pleasure in the high life – thus visits to the Pavilion in Brighton are rare and somewhat subdued.  Also, the Reform Bill, introduced by those meddlesome Whigs, has curtailed the Sovereign’s authority with Parliament.  So King William may feel that the royal life style should be less extravagant.”

He looked to see if I was still listening, noted that I had his attention, then got into his stride:  “His preference is for visiting old friends, quietly.  The Edgecumbes for example.  Their lovely old house, Mount Edgecumbe, overlooks Plymouth Sound and that, of course, appeals to His Majesty as he can view, from a strategically placed telescope, the naval vessels.  It is also a favourite visiting place of Her Majesty.”

“Where exactly is this house you speak of?” I asked.

“Oh, it is on the other side of the Tamar, the River Tamar; can’t recollect whether it’s in Devon or Cornwall – think that the estate is in Devon, not sure. I know Her Majesty enjoys it there,” he added with pride, “because she informed me so herself.” Then leaning forward in his chair and warming to the subject, he went on: “The house is at a place called Cremyl apparently, and the Queen likes to drive from there to the stone–built Arbour which the King arranged to have built especially for her.  It looks like a chapel, she told me, but when draped with tapestries, cushions and rugs it is a delightful place in which to sit. As  it is situated  above Penlea Point.  Her Majesty enthused about watching the Atalantic waves crashing on the rocks below.”

Leaning forward again, he said in a conspiratorial fashion:  “You know of course that His Majesty was really in love with the actress Dorothy Jordan?  He lived with her for twenty–one years and they produced ten healthy, but unfortunately, illegitimate children.”

“What must the Queen have felt  about this when the King married her?” I asked.

“Adelaide of Saxe–Meiningen … yes indeed. It must have been difficult for her to accept. That was why his building of the Arbour at Penlea was important, a token gesture, as it were.  Just two little girls from that Royal union, and now both dead – no heir.  That is why King William is thinking of this very young Princess Victoria as the next sovereign.  Amazing, when you think.  Twenty–three offspring, but, I regret to say that, apart from William, they were so indulgent and extravagant they killed themselves off.  The Princess Victoria is fortunately not indulgent; quite the opposite.”

Charles came over at this point, perhaps to rescue me, because he’d heard it all before,  whereas I felt I was being treated as a confidante, and was rather flattered.  But the thought of being asked by Charles to make up a four for Whist was even more flattering.

Later, during a quiet moment, Charles asked if I had located any old editions  of The Times.

“I managed to convince aunt Harriet that I wished to follow the Court Circular,” I told him,  “in order to keep abreast with uncle John’s movements.  I also told her that I wanted to read more about activities in London, and current affairs… the latter part being true.  She has kept many old copies of The Times, but she misinterpreted my interest, and I discovered about half an hour ago, that she has arranged for me to return to London with aunt Em and uncle John.”

“Well that should be fun, you’ll come back talking about the theatre like Mother. Did you look up the shipping?”

“Yes, a boat left Madras that should have arrived in time for Christmas. Since we have had no word, there is not much likelihood for another month.”

“So now you can relax.” Charles said indulgently.

 

 

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“Time for me to pack yer box Miss.”  Mary announced one morning.  It was all happening much sooner than I had thought it would, but uncle John’s call to return to his duties could not be ignored, and there’d been no opportunity to seek uncle Henry’s advice on ‘that letter’.

“What should I take?”

“Not a lot, Ma’am says.  She says Mrs John’ll get you some new things in Lunnon, and there’s not much room atop them coaches for yer boxes,  as yer knows.  But I’m told to tell yer to wrap up warm for the journey – not like when you rode over to Dursingham though, Ma’am says.”

How had Harriet got to hear about that I wondered?  Small village, staff gossip?  Not Mary, no she would not have been disloyal to me.  What a good soul she was, and so from what she told me,  was ‘her Will’ whom she hoped to marry one day.  I would miss Mary very much, and I told her so.

Fortunately Charles and Louisa had not left for their home, so we were able to make a few provisional plans before I left.  Charles said he would leave a written message for Cowper with Jackson, which he should present to him if he arrived at Fynes. The message would advise him to go straight to Castle Dursingham.

We left in the brougham for Halstead, then whilst waiting at The Bull for the coach to Chelmsford, we ate a hearty dinner, which uncle had previously ordered. We did not have to arrive until the evening because we were booked on to the London mailcoach.  Sometimes it came from Ipswich, and sometimes all the way from Yarmouth, to pick up passengers at Chelmsford.  Uncle nearly always travelled by The Mail, partly because it had a certain prestige, and partly because it went very much faster.  He had explained that The Mails travelled through the night to maintain speed, because  the roads were virtually deserted.  Therefore, woe betide any farmer returning from a jolly evening at the local hostelry.  The Mails had the right of way and with a call on the post horn would rush past, sometimes running the luckless farmer’s cart into a ditch.

Travelling was quite a performance, as I had learned when returning with uncle Henry from Ireland. On that occasion we had docked at Holyhead and then had journeyed down through Wales.  It had been rather a wet early spring. For some strange reason the mailcoaches crossed the Severn at Aust instead of going through Gloucester.  Speed, uncle Henry said.  We had had no choice but to wade through the river mud to gain access to the ferryboat, then back on to the coach and the Bristol road to London. Here, for some reason, uncle and I had not stayed with his brother at Pall Mall, but at an Inn, which was why this would be my first visit to their London home.   From London we had journeyed to Chelmsford, thence to Halstead where we had been met at The Bull by Jim. Here I was at The Bull once again, but I knew I was embarking on a shorter journey and was looking forward to it.

Once inside the coach, the wooden shutters in the two doors were closed against the cold outside, and with no way of seeing out it was easy to forget that we were travelling through the night.   My uncle appeared to me  to be a man of means, yet he could not afford to travel all the way to London in his own equipage.  It would have been very expensive to provide four horses every sixteen miles, with ostlers and stabling to pay for.  A smaller post chaise  would not have been large enough for all of us and our luggage.   Thus, the three of us were now pressed inside the coach, whereas Aunt’s maid Suzy was sitting outside (on top as it was called), suffering the freezing night air and whatever else a December night might hurl at her.

Just before we left Halstead, a very large lady pushed herself, with great difficulty, through the small doorway.  She sat next to Aunt Em. almost obscuring her.  If this was not enough she was laden with packages of all kinds. These spilled over our knees  which were touching across the small space.  Every bump in the road dislodged another  package and in bending down to retrieve it, which she always did (despite uncle’s entreaties and offers) her very large feathered bonnet bent down with her, constantly tickling our faces and making our eyes water if we did not close them quickly enough.  We soon discovered, fortunately, that she was to travel no further than Chelmsford.

The mailcoach only stopped for twenty minutes to allow the passengers to eat a meal. So I realised why uncle had ordered the most excellent meal at the Bull Inn, served before a welcome log fire, and this had set us up for the journey. During the regular change of horses a quick quaff of hot toddy might be brought out to passengers. I opened the door to watch how quickly the ostlers changed horses.  They were waiting and ready and in six minutes the ‘fresh four’ were in the shafts and buckled up.

“Long practice and a fear of losing their jobs.” Uncle had reasoned. A small, timid-looking man now joined us inside. Since this was to be the longer part of our journey, we were very relieved.   He did rather annoy uncle by asking to know the time, on every occasion that we stopped. Uncle’s carriage clock in its padded case swung on a special hook fixed in the roof above the door.  Each time the little man enquired uncle had to extract the clock and seek a lantern outside to read the time.”

“Ah, we’re not stopping at the Swan tonight” uncle said, lowering the window briefly, to glance out as we rushed past.

“How do the ostlers know whether to be ready or not?” I asked

“There are several tunes which the Guard plays on the post horn, and that is one of them” said uncle.

“Does the tune indicate that we are stopping?” I asked.

“Yes, or passing, or changing horses.” he replied.

“Do they know all the tunes?”

“Of course.  It is their business to do so.  Men in the fields, or in their cottages, know the tunes too.  So if the tune tells them a coach will stop and they want the latest news from Yarmouth, Ipswich or London, they’ll make plans to visit the inn.  London news is usually preferred – the coachman and the guard are the main carriers of news.  When we won the battle of Waterloo all the coaches were bedecked with ribbons to tell the nation the good news. Countryfolk everywhere still talk of that.”

News; everyone wanted to know the latest news … news from India, perhaps addressed to me, would head for Great Maplethorpe by mailcoach.  What would aunt and uncle think of it, and when would it be the right time to tell them?

We arrived in the cold, early hours of the morning and it was delightful to enter the wonderfully warm coffee house.  The smell of steaming hot coffee, and freshly baked rolls, spilled out of the door and swirled around the tables.  Faint traces of freshly lighted Havana cigars added to the atmosphere.  All types of people were there, travellers like us, but also early buyers at the markets, newsmen who’d been up all night and business men obviously anxious for the mail which our coach had brought.

It was very exciting – we’d arrived in London.

 

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