Why are you doing this?
“Why am I here?”
Anna looked around at the Barringer house that she had visited just a short time before.
She was expected to dismount and enter the house; and seeing Miss Barringer in the doorway, smiling at her, inviting her in, she did so.
Mr. Maskell saw his son lead the horses away before turning to her.
“You are here, Miss Rothschild, because I needed time to speak with you alone.”
“Like this? You could have asked, rather than… giving me little choice”
“I apologize for not being socially appropriate, but I needed time to speak with you alone, and I doubted that you would have chosen to do so. I need half an hour of your time and I could not take the chance of you refusing me.”
“But like this?”
“I was given little choice in approaching you the way I did, if you think about it. Where else might I have approached you and not been told to take myself off, or that I was not welcome?” He had a point. Memory of his father, would sour relationships for some time.
“My father left all of us with an unenviable reputation in this area, and a very thin welcome almost everywhere. I could not risk you leaving before I had chance to explain something important to you.”
She would be patient and give him chance to deliver his explanation.
“I am listening, sir.”
“Thank you, but we should also relax. Suzanne is preparing some tea and cakes for us.”
Anna would not be so boorish as to refuse Miss Barringer’s hospitality now that she was here, so sat down and waited. There was some comfort in Suzanne's presence.
Mr. Maskell thought for a while before he continued.
“I’m not sure how much you knew of my father.” He raised an eyebrow in a questioning way, and waited for her to say something.
“Not much. From what I learned, the relationship with his neighbors was strained at best.”
“You were fortunate then; not knowing much. He was the same with his family. ‘Strained’, was putting the relationship, mildly. He was justifiably hated, but we were helpless to change anything, as long as he lived.
“My sons and I moved down to London many years ago to escape his moods, and were able to make ourselves useful there, but with that name; Maskell, more doors were closed to us, than were opened.”
This Mr. Maskell sounded almost reasonable, and expressed himself with patience and care.
“My father was a tyrant, like his father before him. He became worse the older he got and the more infirm he became. Woe-betide anyone who crossed swords with him, as I too often did, or displeased him, as we, his closest; his only relatives, seemed to do all of the time, and as his neighbors always did, of course, when he tried to encroach upon their land and claim what was not his.”
She had heard of some of that.
“He trespassed onto his neighbors’ properties, tore down their walls and fences, cut down their trees to sell the wood off, and continually tried to profit from them. He even emptied their remote barns of hay, or raided their clamps and sold off, both hay and whatever else he could steal in the dead of night. We tried to reverse some of that, but it was sometimes hard to stay ahead of him and those he hired to help him in his dishonesty.
"We decided it were better to leave. That was about ten years ago.
“His age, and a stroke, slowed him down over the last few years. That, and the brandy.”
Miss Barringer placed tea on the table. Anna did not refuse, when a cup was poured for her, with others for Mr. Maskell and his son who'd also joined them, sitting back along the table.
“Thank you, my dear.” Suzanne smiled at him for his thanks.
He continued speaking.
“We returned about the same time you took up residence at Appleton, three years ago, learned the true state of his affairs, and tried to undo what he was doing.
"There was a time, before we came back, when he actually admitted that he needed our help, but that was a ruse to get us here. When we saw what he was doing, we could not just leave, as would have been the wise thing to do, and as we should have done, except others were being hurt by his actions; my younger son and his wife.” He nodded in the direction of Miss Barringer.
Anna had no idea that Suzanne was married, but there was an easiness between them that suggested close family ties.
“Being more and more house-bound, my father did not know that Richard had returned two years before we did, to marry, and was able to alert us to what my father was doing.
“He borrowed to the hilt, and he ran everything he touched, into the ground."
Anna had nothing to lose by listening. She was learning a lot that she did not know and would never have found out while she had been at Appleton, and remote from all of this.
“My son and I returned from London with my father's promise that we would get everything if we did, but also with the promise that we would be disinherited if we did not do so. His 'everything', turned out to be, 'nothing'."
I sounded as though his father had been nothing but disappointment, every step of the way.
“Many times, I wished that I had ignored him and had not returned, but for the sake of my son and his family, we had little choice. I felt we could be more effective here.
“My father’s affairs were far worse than I might have believed, but we didn't find out the full extent of it until close to his death.” He sighed heavily.
“We fought about that, but he would not budge and give me power of attorney to turn things around, or he was too proud, and too ashamed to have me learn of the full depth of his inroads, so I had to work behind his back. We all did, to protect what we could, and we were succeeding, slowly.”
Anna knew some of it. The Barringers had been helped in their efforts with the succession houses, and now she knew who, and how.
This was a side to the Maskells that she was unaware of. 'One bad apple...' The grandfather, had turned the whole area against them all.
“We almost succeeded in separating and protecting this Barringer estate--also largely owned by my father--from the creditors, and for the Barringers, but my father died before we completed that, and threw everything open to be claimed and foreclosed by his lenders in London, who are preparing to descend upon us even now.
“In short, Miss Rothschild, we are about to be financially ruined, and all of us will soon be turned out of our homes.”
Anna was almost afraid to ask where this was going.
“And what do you think I can do about this, Sir?”
“I need your help, Miss Rothschild.”
“I can never repay the capital; well into the tens of thousands of pounds, but I need to begin to repay some of these loans to keep the banks at bay.”
She went pale. He was asking the impossible.
He noticed the look on her face.
“I am not in a position to lend anyone, money, Sir. Everything I have, is tied up in the estate, as it is here. We are more than self-sufficient, yes, but a bad year or two would set us back. We would then have difficulties ourselves."
She continued. “I have some money of my own, but not nearly as much as you might believe, or near as much as you need. I also do not have as much freedom or influence as you might assume.”
“I assume nothing. Of course it is tied up. We are all land rich, and cash, poor. I was not asking for your money.”
Anna was striving to see a way out of it for them. “There must be some way. Yet you say that money is not what you need of me.”
“No, I need something much simpler from you. I need to borrow something other than money, and only for a brief time before it will be returned to you; a few weeks at most, and you do not need to lift a finger. You have the means to help us, Miss Rothschild, but it requires something I do not have the right to ask of you; yet I must. It is very simple. You have an unencumbered estate, which now belongs to you outright, and you have a good name, whereas we do not.”
“I don’t know what you think I can do, Sir. The estate belongs to me and to my partners, yes, but I am only a minority owner.”
“I am not asking for money.”
He wasn't? It always boiled down to money.
She was confused. “Then what do you need from me?”
“I need to borrow your good name for a while.” She looked perplexed.
He took a deep breath.
“I know I am asking a lot, and for you to trust me, and god knows why you would, but we need you to marry one of us! Either me or my elder son. It does not matter which.”
He was partially prepared for what he would see on her face and for what she would say. No woman would ever choose to be coerced into such a marriage with any man, especially one she did not know. She would never trust them so far with so much. There was far too much at stake.
She laughed, nervously.
“Impossible! I am….” She could not easily tell them of her own circumstance; that she was already married. At least she believed herself married. She had better be married, considering what was growing within her body, but she had no proof of it; no church record.
He seemed very calm. Facing complete and utter ruin will do that to a man.
“Few things are truly impossible, Miss Rothschild, though I understand your not wishing to trust anything that I am telling you. I can't blame you for that. You know so little of us, and what you do know is not to our credit.”
He looked at his son and daughter in law.
“We are not the only ones who will lose everything. The bank is about to foreclose, and to put us off our own land; the Barringers too, and to deny us, and them, the homes we have known all of our lives. They do not deserve that, not with us having come so close to rescuing them, where we could not rescue our own home. So close, and yet....”
Anna felt for them, seeing the worry on Miss Barringer’s face. This was the only home she and her brother had ever known, and Anna must have seemed their last hope.
“You can save us from that. Marry one of us, and the bank will not be in such a haste to foreclose. We will be given some breathing room to recover, even to seek terms from another banker. Like you, we have seen continual improvements. Another year, and we would have succeeded, especially with my father being dead, and no longer working against us.”
Anna still said nothing.
“Within a week or two, at most, once we have secured an alternative source of lending, you may have the marriage annulled, and everything will be back as it should be, with no one harmed, and no one the wiser. It can all be kept confidential. The local vicar is a good man and is aware of this.”
Even as he said that, he knew that it would be difficult.
Miss Anna could see many problems with what he was suggesting.
“I am sure you cannot have thought it through, Sir. Kidnapping me, and forcing me into a marriage, is a capital offense.”
Just why she'd thought of that, she could not be sure, and they didn't deserve any of that consequence, trying to protect those they loved. She might do the same as they had tried to do, faced with the same difficulties.
He looked sharply at her. Of course she was scared and angry.
Damn his father for bringing them all down.
“No one is forcing you into marriage, Miss Rothschild. Nor have you been kidnapped. You were temporarily sidetracked from your return home, by an appeal from me so that I may explain this circumstance to you and seek your help. I promised that you would not be harmed, and nor will you be.
“If you will not help me; us… then please help the Barringers, if you can. They do not deserve this, because of my father. I am asking nothing for myself, but ask for my sons and for the Barringers, who do not deserve to suffer for the actions of my father. They will lose everything, just as we will."
She did not like to hear that.
“I am sorry. My accusation was unjust. When I said it was impossible, Sir, I meant exactly that. I cannot marry you or anyone else. I am already married.”
She held up her hand and showed him her ring.
He was speechless for a few moments.
“It is only a ring, Miss Rothschild.”
“It is my wedding ring, Sir. That horse, out there; Tornado; and that saddle, they were given to me by my husband.”
This was something he had not anticipated, but he had never seen that horse before Miss Rothschild had arrived back, after the time she had gone missing, and without memory of where she had been--he knew that-- so maybe it was true.
He had not expected this. His fate and that of his family was now in the hands of the lenders. They would not be long in foreclosing.
He realized that he was defeated yet again.
“Then you are to be congratulated. Who is the fortunate man that you married? We never saw any man in attendance on you, or paying you court, or I can assure you that this, that we did, would never have happened.”
“I cannot say who he is, Sir. There is no church record of it at this moment and my memory of that time is mostly blank. I have even forgotten his full name. But I know that I am married.”
She could not tell them anything more, or explain the delicate circumstance she was in. What little she could tell them was far too little for anyone to believe.
“When did you marry?"
"A few weeks ago." She could not give a date, as she did not know it, herself. It must all sound preposterous. It did, even to her; not knowing the family name of the man she married, or even the date.
“I was missing for two weeks. That time is just a dream at this moment as I recall too little of it, but I recall being married and writing my name (but it had not been her name that she had written, but one given to her)." She recalled much more of a very personal nature taking place between them, that preceded and followed that, but she could not say anything of that, to these people. It was far too shocking to admit to anyone, even to herself.
Mr. Maskell began to feel beaten at every turn.
“I knew you were missing, of course. Mr. Frith and others were all over this area searching for you. We helped where we could, but that was just after my father died, so we were facing many problems of our own, and waiting for the axe to fall.”
Their problems had been far more onerous than hers, considering how happy she remembered being, despite almost losing her life, and those strange and wonderful things that had happened between them, and without her uttering a single word of protest. She had been a much-more-than-willing participant.
Oh, the glorious shame of it!
“I recovered my memory only when I returned home; but at the same time, I lost it completely of that other time; of those two weeks. Of who, I married. However, I know that I am married.”
She had to be married! If she wasn’t…?
She was married!
She looked at them, seeing how her words confused them, and decided to tell them more to try and convince them of the truth of what she was saying.
“I am also with child, from that time.” She actually blushed too.
A dead silence fell across the room. They all looked surprised, even shocked. She had not intended to tell them that personal detail, but it was another convincing point, if they believed her.
Mr. Maskell seemed to know that she was not misleading him. One did not lie about something so personally devastating, or so serious. She had no need to lie.
She still couldn’t prove anything adequately to them. At least, where they were, far from London, that admission would not take off through society, as gossip so easily did when such questionable things happened to other young women. Fortunately, they were far enough from that hotbed of gossip, in London... though it was only a matter of time....
“Then I congratulate you, Miss Rothschild. What you just told us will not go beyond here.”
“No. Thank you, Miss Rothschild for listening to me and being honest. I am sorry to have presented you with a problem to deal with that was not of your making and which you clearly cannot help us with.”
She began to regret that. He had been nothing but reasonable and calm about it all despite being faced even more surely with ruin, but what he had asked…?
“I shall get your horse brought around and ensure that you get home safely. I apologize for this other.”
He sat heavily at the table, seeing only ruin staring him in the face. He was close to tears seeing his life beginning to disappear, and having exhausted all options. Damn his father!
Anna rose to her feet, thinking to walk out of the house and return to Appleton once she had taken her leave of Suzanne, also standing there, just as pale, but was unsteady on her feet, needing to lean back against the table.
“What is the matter, Miss Rothschild?”
“I am faint.”
Miss Barringer rushed in to help her before she fell, even as Mr. Maskell caught her and held her steady.
Miss Suzanne knew what the problem was likely to be.
“When did you last eat, Miss?”
“Then you have been neglecting yourself, and you must never do that with you ‘carrying’, as you are. You have to begin eating for two now, as this progresses. I am.” Anna was being gently taken to task, pretty much as Hetty did, but she had not missed that other comment, suggesting that Suzanne was also with child. Pregnant, and faced with losing everything too, yet here she was thinking of her?
“You should rest-up for a while, and you shall dine with us before you return home. Dinner is already cooking, and is well along.”
They were faced with losing everything they had grown up with, and they still were being kind to her? She wished she had been able to help them.
“You can rest in my room, upstairs, Miss. It is quiet up there, and you can lie down until you are recovered. Dinner will be no more than another hour. If you are not able to eat with us I shall bring you a tray up, but I’ll see you have a glass of milk first and a snack to help you get back to your usual self before you do anything else. 'Little, and often', is what my grandmother always used to say. That's how you have to eat. 'Little, and often'.”
“Thank you, Suzanne.”
Why were they being so kind to her?
Miss Barringer (Mrs. Maskell?) prepared a tray for the girl to bring up with them, and helped Miss Anna upstairs, to get over her sudden weak spell.
“I do need to lie down and rest. Thank you, Suzanne. I also need to think. I am sure there must be a way out of this that will not see you lose everything.”
“Don’t worry your head about it, Miss. It’s our problem, not yours. The good Lord will provide. He has before, and he will again.”
There was a startling crash of sound from just outside the house.
There had been a sudden change in the weather. It darkened and became windy, with lightning flashing, and thunder rolling down upon them, and then the heavy rain began, beating up against the windows.
Miss Rothschild wouldn’t be able to go anywhere until this had blown over, so she would have to stay for dinner now. They could always get word to Appleton to explain where she was, and to stop them worrying.