Three years earlier. Mr. Crabtree.
Anna’s life had changed suddenly for the better with the arrival of Mr. Crabtree at her parents’ house in London almost exactly three years earlier, just two days after her twenty-first birthday.
It had taken her almost an hour to understand why he was here to see her. Everything she had assumed about his visit had been wrong.
Because he had asked specifically to visit her, his purpose seemed obvious to her. He was here to propose to her.
Learning that she would be indisposed for at least another thirty minutes, he had asked to speak with her parents.
That clinched it. He must be a suitor for her hand in marriage; the last of them likely to appear. She knew that.
Her heart fell, wondering how she could let him down gently and kindly, so as not to give offense or hurt his feelings. She also needed to think about it. If he was likely to be the last, perhaps she should not be in such a rush to refuse him.
She still smiled over her gaffe in assuming him to be a suitor, and being uncertain about what to do, never having to make such a life-changing decision before.
He had visited with her parents first, as a wise suitor would always be advised to do, even though she was now of that age to make her own decisions.
Her feelings of despair and of dying a spinster, had begun almost three years before, when she had been just eighteen, sheltered from the hard realities of life by doting parents and protective brothers. She’d thought, like all young people, that she had the world at her feet, while knowing nothing of the realities of life. She was just entering London society with all of its promise for her future in front of her.
She was young, she was beautiful, and she was intelligent. Other matrons with daughters to present, hated her upon sight. She was too beautiful, too confident, and so assured (the benefits of having older brothers to argue with) and was a magnet for the young bucks and some of the older gentlemen too. And all the more of a magnet when she did not gush gratitude over them paying her any attention, but ignored most of them. She found them to be mostly empty-headed; unable to converse rationally or sensibly. None of them interested her in that special way.
Those matrons with plain daughters, plotted in secret how to bring her down. Whom might they approach to bribe, to see her compromised, and ruined? They were prepared to stoop as low as needed, to remove her from the 'lists'.
A week after her presentation in society, illness struck her father down before the ‘plotting’ and ‘machinations’ of jealous mothers could be put into effect. Hell had no fury to exceed that of a mother who had an unimpressive daughter to launch into society with others more beautiful and more outgoing, standing in her way, so Anna was saved from all of that unpleasantness.
She must forego her recent foray into society (society’s prayers had been answered without it lifting a finger against her) and return home to manage her father’s estate. Her brothers couldn’t, as they were all married by then and had moved away from home.
Because of her father’s illness, Anna was about to lose her only chance at making a good marriage, but she did not begrudge having to return. She had seen enough in just that one week, to see what society was all about. It held nothing for her. Marriage was not in her future.
Her life and future had changed from that moment, and not for the better. At least, not as far as any of her relatives could see; nor Anna herself.
Learning about her father’s financial situation had been shockingly eye-opening. Her parents were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and faced being thrown out of their own home to pay off their debts. Anna could not allow that.
One bright light in all of that gloom, had been when Hetty, a cousin on her mother’s side, had joined them as Anna’s companion in their distress.
Hetty was used to hardship, and had also been housekeeper to one of the finest families in the City that had been caught up in a similar situation as Anna's, so she had been let go.
Hetty knew about running a large household and how to get the most out of it. She soon saw what was needed, and took over running the house and its needs, while Anna took on the affairs of the modest estate outside of the house. She and Hetty managed all of the day to day finances.
Her father could no longer object.
It had been a long and uphill fight, and between them they had succeeded in turning her family’s affairs around, but by then, Anna had been too long out of society and with no chance of recovering any of that lost ground. In truth, she had been too busy to miss it before it had gone.
Then, her twenty-first birthday had crept up on her, and Mr. Crabtree came with his news, but not as she had first expected.
Mr. Crabtree’s first thought when he first met her was;
'Surely this cannot be the young woman I have come to see? This one is far too beautiful to have escaped marriage with some young firebrand. And she is much too young for this.’
She was also nothing like the little girl he remembered from many years earlier.
Many thoughts tore through his brain.
’There must be suitors still pouring out of the clubs to knock at this door, but she had ignored them all, else he would not be here.'
Perhaps he had mistaken his directive from his employer, though he knew he hadn’t. He had been here more than once before to meet with Rothschild, but had never noticed their only daughter, other than in passing, though that had been some years ago. And this lady was far too assured to be so young as only twenty-one.
He soon recovered, and recognized that there was no mistake. She dressed well. Her hair was in the current style, as far as he would know. Her complexion was unblemished, her voice, not shrill, her teeth were straight, and her smile...?
She smiled beautifully as she offered her hand to him, and greeted him with an honest welcome, even if she did not know him from Adam.
Everything about her was open, honest, and disarming. What was society coming to, to be able leave one such as this to reach her twenty-first birthday unscathed, but open to what he had to offer her?
Had he been thirty years younger, and single…?
It was only a fleeting moment of unfaithfulness to his loving wife, and she would readily forgive him and laugh with him over it when he told her. Those memorable interludes were few and far between in their staid existence, and were worth sharing.
And so they each; Crabtree and Anna, wordlessly, weighed up the other as she invited him into the parlour.
“Please take a seat, Sir. Would you like a glass of sherry, or tea?”
He refused the offer of sherry for the moment.
“Perhaps later,” but thanked her and accepted her offer of tea, then got the usual minor pleasantries out of the way;
’He hoped he found her well. How were her father and mother?’
She resisted smiling and telling him that he would know that, far better than she would, as he had just left them; (not wishing to throw him off stride.)
She responded politely.
After that he came straight to the point, taking her completely off guard with her still struggling to determine how to save him from being hurt by her refusal.
“I have some documents that I need you to look over, and if it suits you, Miss Rothschild, to sign.”
He did not sound like a suitor. And what documents? No, not a suitor. She felt relieved in one way, if not in another.
She hoped she was not blushing. “Then you are not here to…?”
She caught herself in time from blurting out what she had thought, that he was here to offer for her. What an embarrassing mistake that would have been, making such an assumption, but at least she had not laughed at him. A feeling of relief flooded over her.
Then what was he here for?
He picked up her words where she had left off, but he smiled knowingly, as though anticipating what she had assumed; but not saying it to embarrass them both.
“…Not here to discuss your father’s affairs with you? No. Hardly. I gave up on that, years ago.”
Fortunately, he gave the impression that he had misunderstood her interruption, and did not notice her blushing uncertainty.
“I used to try and help your father, many years ago, but, alas, he would not listen to me. Despite that, we remain good friends. However… he did listen to you, eventually, and was able to be guided by you. You succeeded where others thought you would fail.”
She nodded her head to acknowledge the compliment and waited for him to continue.
“I was aware of what you were doing for the last few years for your father, and I must congratulate you on being able to turn his affairs around, which, frankly, I had not believed to be possible. No, I am here on another matter altogether.”
He smiled, as she poured a tea for him and passed it across to him.
“I trust you will be patient with me, Miss Rothschild, while I ask you some personal questions. And yes, I already know the answers to all of them, I know your family well, but please bear with me, I am required to ask them by my employer in this affair.
Employer? And what affair? Anna was now curious.
Mr. Crabtree needed to verify certain things.
She was Anna Miriam Rothschild, daughter of Matthew and Helen Rothschild of Park Hill House, and had just two days ago turned twenty-one?
He asked, even though he knew the answers almost as well as she did.
“Yes. I am. And yes, I did.”
“You have a companion with you of some years standing now, a Miss Henrietta Langford?”
It was all very confusing. What did Hetty have to do with this?
“Hetty Langford, yes, but she is a widow.”
“And she is... where?” He looked up at her.
“She is visiting one of her relatives, but she resides under this roof as my companion.”
“I would have liked to have met with her too, as this involves her almost as much as you, but no matter.” He sat back. “Tell me, Miss Rothschild, what do you know of your godmother?”
Anna was speechless, not knowing where this was going.
“My godmother? Do I have one?” She was still blushing over her earlier near-miss, in assuming him to be a potential suitor. “Yes, I suppose I do have one. A remote relative if I recall, but I have not seen her since I was very young. My Great Aunt Lydia. Lydia DeMerchant.” At least she remembered her now.
“Lady, Lydia DeMerchant.” He smilingly corrected her.
“Oh, Yes.” She blushed again at having forgotten that.
“What do I know of her?” She struggled to remember. “Very little, except….” He waited for her to continue.
“Mama and I visited her once, somewhere far to the north.”
He came to the rescue again. “Ridgefield. The Appleton Estates. Some ten thousand acres at this time.”
Estates. Plural. And so much land?
“Yes. I recall a very large house set in extensive grounds. I remember Mama was very excited at having been invited to visit her, but I was too young to know anything about it. I recall little, other than that, but I do remember that she was a very kind lady. I sat on the floor, played with her little dogs, and read one of her London Fashion magazines. And I remember eating some of the most delectable little cakes imaginable while she and Mama spoke.” Anna had even listened in, and was surprised that some of the conversation was about her, but none of it had registered or meant anything to her.
“Yes, she is very kind.”
He drank at his tea as he studied her face.
“And do you know why I am here today?”
“Apart from it being just after my birthday, which I am sure cannot have anything to do with your visit.” She was sure of no such thing. “No. One day is very much like another, here.”
Her heart fell. Oh, god! Lady DeMerchant was to take pity on her circumstance, and ask her to become her companion? She would have to refuse, of course, except it also seemed to involve Hetty too, so she would not rush into any assumption.
“Quite! Your twenty-first birthday is behind you now, and that, is the reason I am here. You are twenty-one, and a responsible adult.”
She didn’t feel any different, and she didn’t feel any more responsible than she had when she had been a year younger, two days earlier. She nodded.
“That birthday is a turning point in everyone’s life. Especially yours, if you agree to what I will propose.”
Propose? He had come here to propose, but something other than marriage. Something even worse if she was to be a companion to a wealthy old lady who had long since turned her back on everything and everyone.
He looked through another document and then glanced up at her, seeing the confusion upon her face.
“Tell me, Miss Rothschild, are you either married, or engaged to be married?”
She almost laughed. What a strange question. What had that got to do with anything? Except, if she was married, her being a companion for her godmother would be out of the question. But what business was it of his to be asking such personal questions of her?
She held that comment in check and answered his question politely, wanting to know where all of this was leading. She gave in to her impulse and said even more than may have been wise, in response.
“No. Nor chance of it happening either, the way things are.” He nodded his head and listened, encouraging her to continue. One learned much more by listening, and by encouraging the other party to speak.
“I am twenty-one and”—she doubted he wanted to hear of her circumstance, but he must already know all about her, knowing her father as he did—“and without a dowry of any kind to bribe any suitor, so I am likely to remain unmarried in this acquisitive, socially-demanding society of ours.”
He continued jotting things down as she rambled on, as though forgetting he were there for the moment, opening up more than required, but keeping her deeper inner thoughts, about men, in check.
“A dowry seems to be essential these days, but I turned all of my potential suitors away before they had chance to find that little detail out. They none of them, suited anyway. So, Yes. I am single and likely to remain so.”
She had said more than enough, and perhaps more than she should have.
As he sat with her and asked his questions, making tick marks on the papers in front of him according to her answers (she had not realized that the role of companion could be so demanding that she had to lay her entire life bare), he quickly learned that there was no flaw in any part of Miss Rothschild’s character.
This young woman would be mistress of her own fate, no matter what cards life dealt her, and life was about to deal her a magnificent opportunity.
He sat back and folded most of his papers away into a folder. “All of your answers and your circumstance are as I expected, so I have some good news for you. I hope.”
She listened with growing interest and disbelief. None of it could be good news for her.
“You are to be the beneficiary; the sole beneficiary of that same distant relative’s estates. The same Great Aunt you once visited.”
He waited to see how she would respond to that.
Anna had gone suddenly speechless. She had not expected this, whatever it meant.
She laughed nervously.
“You mean I am not to be…? I am her beneficiary?” Anna was not sure that she had heard him correctly, asking him to repeat it, which he did, understanding that she might not easily believe what he was telling her.
Anna wondered why had she not known or heard of her Great Aunt Lydia’s passing? It had not been announced in the Gazette,
“When did she die? Why did we not hear of that?”
“She did not die, Miss Rothschild. I did not say that you are, the beneficiary, but that you are to be, her beneficiary. She is in good health, but resides in Spain at this time.
“If you accept the property and the conditions with it, we can at least begin the process of transferring the property into your care almost immediately, but it is a long process which will not be completed for about three years.” She accepted that. They would need to know that she was capable of doing it.
Why so long? Not that it mattered. She did not ask.
He anticipated the unasked question.
“You may change your mind once you see the estate and begin to understand the magnitude of the task you will be taking on. There are many reasons why it cannot be finalized immediately.”
That was wise. She might not wish to be trapped on such a large property, miles from anywhere, and she was to be given a period of grace to make up her mind as she suffered the questionable deprivation of London society.
She would not miss any of it.
Or could it be that they were afraid she might not be capable of undertaking such a demanding venture, and needed some excuse not to finalize everything too quickly?
Anna could easily do without London society. It had not dealt kindly with her.
There had been several conditions spelled out in the bequest, and that she must fulfill before the massive property became hers, in partnership with Hetty, after those three years had elapsed.
The strangest of the conditions, was that she should not be married or engaged to be married, any time before those three years had expired. After that, she could do whatever she wished with herself, and with the property.
The likelihood of marriage had already passed her by, so it was an easy condition to meet, and she had no intention of breaking it. Marriage was not on the books.
It seemed that Anna needed to do nothing, other than accept the various conditions, whatever they might be, that Mr. Crabtree had spoken of.
“You mentioned several conditions, not just that one.
“We got the main one out of the way; that you not be married or engaged to be married. Briefly, the main one, apart from that, is that you, and your companion take up residence on the estate as soon as you reasonably can, now that you have reached your majority.
"I would advise a visit in the next day or so at least, to see what it is all about before you sign anything final. I can arrange that, if you agree to it?”
“Yes, thank you.” She had no choice but to be guided by him.
“I can only stress that no one, not directly involved with the estate, shall be allowed to influence you in any way. Not your mother or father, your uncle, or any of your brothers. Mr. Frith can advise you there.”
He explained. “Your godmother’s estate-manager in England, and a well-trusted man. He will tell you of other conditions as the need arises, but none of them are important and all may be changed as required.”
“You may not dispose of any property for any reason before those three years are up without Mr. Frith’s approval, but you may acquire it as you see fit, and again, in consultation with your estate manager, Mr. Frith, who will have the greater say about there being any disposals or acquisitions for the first two years as you find your feet. In the third year you, and you, alone, may make that decision after that, if you feel the need to override his counsel. I would still advise you to consult Mr. Frith, however.
“His family has successfully managed that estate for three generations now, so he is fully aware of what the estate will, and will not bear.
He sat back and waited to find out what she would say in objection. None of the conditions sounded so ominous to Anna.
“Is that it, sir?”
“Those will do for the moment, and they are the important ones. You will learn of the other, much more flexible conditions as you progress. They will all be relaxed, even dropped, as you prove yourself capable of meeting the challenges. You should look at them as flexible requirements, rather than hard and fast conditions. Much depends upon you, and how well you land on your feet.”
He cautioned her not to be put off by them without giving it a try.
He clearly did not know of Miss Anna’s predicament, or that there was pitifully little that would, or could put her off anything that would see such an unexpected opportunity for change, both in her life and the circumstances, presented to her. After a little reflection, Anna accepted that he probably knew all about her circumstances, and possibly, even better than she did herself.
Later that evening, she watched him drive away.
She sat back, utterly exhausted, mentally, and poured herself another sherry. She had drunk too much, for once, over dinner, but she did not care. It was the only twenty-first birthday she would be able to toast, and the first good-fortune that had come her way.
She was too stunned at first to know what to do, and had gone around the house in a daze after Mr. Crabtree had departed, with him promising to see her, and her companion--who had shown up later in the day--early the following morning and, if it was convenient, they would drive out to see what she had inherited.
He cautioned her to be sure to dress warmly. He would try to have her back home by early evening on the following day, so she should be prepared to spend several nights away from home, just in case the weather turned against them, or there were other delays.
There were many respectable coaching stops where she could break her journey if the need was there, but otherwise, she would be staying on her godmother’s estate.
She had no fear for her safety—Crabtree was well known to her father, and she would, in any case, carry one or both of the small pistols her father had shown her how to use, and to use as well as any man might handle them.
A wise woman was prepared to deal with what life threw at her. She had learned that lesson when the more persistent of her father’s creditors had tried to browbeat her, before she had pointed a gun in his face and told him never to come to their door again.
Whether she liked it or not, Anna’s life had just been decided for her by a relative she barely knew, and she had not resisted it for one second.
Before she retired that evening, she sat with her parents and Hetty, whom they all treated as another daughter, and asked her own questions of them, as though she had not already learned enough from Mr. Crabtree.
She decided to say nothing to any of her brothers or their wives just yet, in case nothing happened as planned, but she was adamant on at least one point; she would put up with almost anything to ensure that nothing went wrong. She would be staying; and doing what was required of her, come hell, or high water!
Who and what was great aunt Lydia? Why leave her estate in England to a distant female relative, actually to two of them, her, and Hetty, but with Anna shouldering all responsibility (subject to Mr. Frith's approval), with Hetty managing the house and the marketing side of things? She would learn more when they got to Appleton.
When Anna retired that night after confiding all that she had learned, to Hetty, including her amused recounting of what she had assumed would be a proposal from an elderly gentleman, but not the kind of proposal she had at first believed: a marriage proposal, she had a very different view of things.
She would tell Hetty all about it on the drive tomorrow, provided they were sufficiently organized to go so soon, and she would go over it in her own mind again.
She learned on the following morning that Mr. Crabtree was unable to take her anywhere. He wrote her a simple explanatory note with his apologies. His plans had unexpectedly changed, but he would be at the estate within a day or so and get her first impressions.
She and Hetty could still go, however, taking enough overnight luggage to stay for at least a few nights if they chose.
A different carriage came for them the next morning.
They were to travel in style up into Bedfordshire.
Their few days at Appleton, turned into a week, and then two, and then a month.
They had never returned to London.