This is all 35 parts of my recent fiction serial in one complete post.
It is a long read, at 31,250 words.
Isiah Dakin was a righteous man, and respected in the town. When he decided to marry quite late in life, many were surprised. He spent a lot of time in the church, never took strong drink, and was respected as one of the foremost leather merchants in the county. But he had never shown interest in women before. His choice of bride was unexpected too. Clara Fernsby was the orphan daughter of Christian Fernsby, who had recently been killed fighting against the king in the service of the Earl of Essex. With her mother long dead, she had been forced to find a home with her elderly aunt, who did not welcome the burden of a young girl to provide for.
It wasn’t long before the elderly spinster was trying to marry Clara off. She was only sixteen, but her plain looks and dumpy figure failed to attract willing suitors. Aunt Elizabeth went to see Mister Dakin. She put it to him that it was his religious duty to marry and bring children into the world, and although Clara had no dowry, he was rich enough that it was of no consequence. She also sought the support of others in the church congregation, suggesting that it was not right for a man like Isiah to live alone with only a servant for company.
With his marital status becoming the talk of the town, Isiah finally crumbled, and agreed to marry the girl within the month. The date chosen was two days after his forty-ninth birthday.
The service was short and sombre. Clara looked terrified throughout, and Isiah was shuffling his feet uncomfortably. There were many in the congregation who later remarked that neither bride nor groom had so much as exchanged a glance during the ceremony. The spinster was relieved to be rid of her financial responsibilities to the girl, and to now be related to a wealthy gentleman of standing.
Clara was rarely seen in the town after that. Isiah would come to the church services, excusing his wife as being unwell, or over-tired. It wasn’t done to pry of course, but the town gossips were well-served by the Dakin’s servant, Goody Tuppy. She worked in the house from early in the morning, preparing cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry. By late afternoon, she would have left a meal for the evening, and started to make her way home. On the way, she liked nothing better than to stop and tell tales to her friends. And her latest news was that the mistress was with child.
It was not an easy confinement, according to Goody Tuppy. Mistress Clara never left her room, and the Master carried on as before, with little sign he had a wife to care for. The girl could keep no food down, and constantly complained about everything, with her mood turning foul, and her attitude toward the servant lacking in good manners. When she was almost due, Isiah left town to visit leather-skinners in London. He explained that he had to make advance bids for the best skins, and expected Tuppy to take care of Clara in his absence. She might well have complained, had he not handed her a fat velvet purse full of coins for her trouble.
The child was a boy, and Clara recovered quickly. When Isiah returned two weeks later, he named his son Matthew Isiah, and sent out to local craftswomen for the best baby clothes. He also hired a wet-nurse all the way from Great Dunmow, and gave her an attic room in his fine house on the edge of town. Goody Tuppy reported that Clara was a good mother, and delighted in her son.
As the years went by, the town talked much of Isiah’s virility. He and Clara produced two more sons and he paid for a family pew at the church, adding a generous donation too. Clara was seen more regularly, and the family now had a maid just to care for the children. Then sad news reached the town. The Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, had died. They met at the church to pray for the soul of the righteous man who had governed England. Not much later, Clara was with child again. Goody Tuppy spread the news that if it were to be a boy, it would be named Oliver. But it was a girl, so they settled on Olivia.
Young Matthew was growing fast. Isiah took him under his wing, training him from an early age in all the necessities required to take over his leather-trading business. According to Goody Tuppy, he paid little attention to Olivia, leaving her with Clara, or the maid. When the monarchy was restored under the new King, Charles II, the town feared the worst. Most were certain they would suffer for their support of Parliament. But the new reign ushered in an era of prosperity, which Isiah took full advantage of. He embarked on travels around the country, accompanied by Matthew. Together, they bought up struggling leather merchants, including saddlers needing investment now there was no war.
When they eventually returned home, Clara announced that she was once again expecting an infant. Instead of joyously welcoming the news, Isiah shut himself away in his room, and even ate his meals there. Each evening in the town square, Goody Tuppy would tell all, to anyone wanting to hear the latest news. Master Matthew had taken over the leather trading, despite his youth, and there was talk that Isiah might have a malady of the mind, or a dysfunction of the brain. When he failed to turn up at church for the fourth week running, tongues began to wag, and the Minister was urged to pay a call on the Manor House.
The wails from the Town Square quickly brought out a crowd. The Minister was on his knees, his vestments bloody, and shouting loudly. “Foul Murder! Summon the Magistrate and The Watch!” He could not be calmed, so the Magistrate rode out to the Dakin House, accompanied by two constables armed with pistols. He found the terrified younger boys cowering in the bushes outside with the maid holding her arms around them. In the dining room, they discovered the body of the pregnant Clara, her throat slashed open by a knife that was lying next to her on the floor. Isiah Dakin stood calmly, holding onto a chair.
“I could take no more humiliation, Sir. You see, I had never laid with her, not once”.
Isiah Dakin was held in the town gatehouse overnight, then sent to Moulsham Goal, in Chelmsford. His trial for the murder of his wife and unborn child was held within the week, and was a brief affair. He admitted his guilt, and said little more. He was hanged two days later, and that devoutly religious man was buried in unconsecrated ground within the prison walls.
Of course, the town was alive with gossip. If Isiah was not the father of his children, then who could it be? Goody Tuppy denied knowing of any male callers or admirers, telling folk that Master Matthew had claimed his father was deranged, and didn’t know what he was saying. All the same he dismissed the stable lad and the gardener, just in case, then sent Ned the handyman a note telling him his occasional services would no longer be required.
Goody Tuppy had said too much, to too many, and she was also told to go, as she could no longer be trusted. Matthew Dakin employed a French widow, a Huguenot refugee. She became live-in housekeeper and cook, with a stern warning never to gossip. He also engaged the services of a tutor for his brothers, a stick-thin, sallow faced man from Colchester who was given the room once used by the wet nurse. With the family business now larger than ever, Master Matthew was rarely at home, and had matured quickly, easily able to manage all his assets.
With the Dakin family fast becoming the most influential in town, gossip all but ceased, and respect was shown to them, with hats tipped in servile greeting. As the town was growing, the Dakin household grew with it. Two housemaids were employed, relatives of the French woman. Matthew had a wooden hut built at the back of the wooded area of his land, and employed a gardener who lived in it. He also did odd jobs, and with no lady of the house to worry about, Matthew was happy to let the man have free run of the estate.
After another long business trip, he returned in the company of a Scottish man, John Hardie. Matthew summoned his brother Christian to the study, and told him he would be travelling to India with Hardie, to expand the business interests with trade from that country. He had arranged a position with the East India Company, but because of his youth, Hardie would accompany him as an adviser. Christian blanched at the prospect of a long sea voyage to an exotic foreign land, but knew better than to refuse. Matthew had become confident, and with that confidence had come an occasional fierce temper. One thing was for sure, he was not the mild-mannered man of religion his father had once been.
Despite being sure he would die on many occasions during the voyage, Christian made it to Calcutta alive. He had lost a considerable amount of weight, and his skin was sore and red from insufficient nourishment. But the suffocating heat in India felt good to him. He marvelled at everything around him; from elephants, to the aroma of spices, and the smiles of young women in their fine silk clothes, with painted eyes. In less than a week, he had regained his strength, and was sure that Calcutta was the place for him.
Hardie had been given charge of the purses of money, and secured fine lodgings for them both. Christian took his letter of credentials to the shabby office of the East India Company, and they confirmed that they would trade his goods for a percentage of profits, and arrangement fees. Being so far from his home in south-east England, Christian discovered much in himself, and was determined to enjoy his time there. No watchful eye of his stern older brother, or gossiping townsfolk to hold him back.
But Hardie was more than an adviser. He was also paid by Matthew to watch his brother.
Being a wealthy English businessman in India was luxury beyond comprehension. Most people were so poor, Christian felt like the richest man in the world. For next to nothing, he could buy the services of anyone, from sedan-chair carriers, to willing young women who showed him the delights of the flesh. Happy to let Hardie make all necessary arrangements for trade, the young man became something of a notorious libertine. Not content with buying the cheap favours of local girls and women, he also pursued the wives, widows, and daughters of English settlers and traders, using his boyish good looks and obvious wealth to great advantage.
In less than three years, it was said that he had fathered at least five children. Four with Indian girls, and one with the plump daughter of a tea trader, the unfortunate girl sent home in disgrace, refusing to name her lover. Hardie managed the trade, and profits rolled in. Matthew was impressed. Even after the extortionate commissions and bribes necessary, the new venture in India was going much better than he had expected. Along with the accounts, Hardie sent a letter. He respectfully suggested that Christian was out of control. Whoring, drinking, and doing no work. His behaviour was alienating other traders, and even the local Indian men of influence.
The news made Matthew furious. It took almost six months for mail to come from India, so it was impossible to know what had happened since Hardie wrote the letter. And it would be the same time before his reply reached his errant brother. He even considered taking ship himself, to bring back the wayward sibling, but he was needed there, as young Benedict had yet to complete his studies. Fuming with rage, he composed a letter to Christian and another with instructions for Hardie. His brother was to return to England on the first available ship, and Hardie was given authority to continue with the business affairs.
It was the following December when the reply finally came. It was not from either Hardie or Christian, but from the office of the Provincial Governor.
He had to sit down as he read it.
It seemed that Christian had not received the news well. In a drunken rage, he had attacked Hardie, cutting his throat with a knife. He was found covered in blood in a stupor, next to the Scotsman’s body. Taken into custody by the troops of the East India Company, he had been hanged for murder, in July.
The town did not hear of the event for over a year, when gossip filtered down from sailors returning home. Goody Tuppy was in the town square, with a group of nags and gossips.
“Mark my words, it runs in the family, so it does”.
The new year brought two resolutions from Matthew Dakin. The first, he decided to marry. The second, he wound up all business with The East India Company. Ever a realist, he concluded that he had tried his luck in India, and it hadn’t worked out for him.
His choice of bride was Purity Hobbs. The daughter of a London shoemaker of renown, a man who was one of his best customers too. Thomas Hobbs agreed to travel to the town for the wedding, with his daughter and her widowed aunt. His wife had died giving birth to Purity, and that aunt was the only mother she had known.
Matthew put on a fine spread following the short marriage service, inviting the Minister and the Magistrate, along with some of the town’s more prominent citizens. Hobbs was merry on port wine when his coachman took him home late that night. And when Matthew retired to the bedchamber after bidding farewell to his guests, he soon discovered that Purity was nothing but a name, as the willing girl welcomed the performance of his nuptial duties, and asked him to stay in her room all night.
There was no denying it was a good match, as the couple seemed happy at all times. In the first week of March, Matthew was presented with a fine son. He was named William, after the Parliamentarian general William Waller, with the second name of Matthew, as was family tradition thus far. With business still doing well, new furniture was bought for the house, and painters engaged to decorate every room. Purity was very happy there, and had become firm friends with Matthew’s young sister, Olivia.
That summer, Matthew took Benedict on a trip to London. The city was being rebuilt to a fine standard after the Great Fire, and he had a mind to establish a new business, cutting out the middlemen who ate into his profits. He had been investigating a skinning and tanning business just south of The River Thames. News had reached him that the owner was an incorrigible gambler, and had debts that needed settling. After taking rooms at The George Inn in Southwark, Matthew and his brother paid a visit on the impoverished tanner, and bargained to clear his debts for the controlling interest in the business. A lawyer was engaged to compile the documents, and the two men shook hands as the banker’s draft was handed over.
Behind his smiling countenance, Matthew concealed his sure knowledge that the gambler would soon lose his share, and he would end up owning it all.
Benedict was startled to be told that he would now be living in London, representing the Dakin family in this new venture. His brother counselled him to watch and learn, until he knew the trade of skinning and tanning well enough to manage alone. Respectable lodgings were secured for him, and enough funds left behind for his everyday needs. Matthew had sent for his clothes and belongings, and they would be arriving soon. He left him with strict instructions to never take strong drink, and to avoid the company of harlots at all costs.
Before leaving London, he also made a call on his father-in-law, to ask him to look out for Benedict. Finding Thomas Hobbs most unwell, he gagged at the sight and smell of some suppurating abscesses around the man’s mouth and throat. But a servant assured him that the best doctors were in attendance.
On the way home in the coach, it occurred to Matthew that if Hobbs were to die, his wife would inherit the lucrative business. And as his wife’s property was his by rights as a husband, he would not only now have the source of the raw materials, but also a leather goods making business too. Regardless of the uncomfortable journey, he arrived home in an excellent mood.
London life suited Benedict well. He made some good connections, and soon became well thought of. But his business acumen and head for figures was less popular with their partner in the skinning and tanning trade, James Holdaway. He resented the young man, and was never afraid to show his disdain for the Dakin family. In letters to his brother, those matters were reported by Benedict in detail, but Matthew wrote back and told him to bide his time. Meanwhile, Purity delivered a second son, a healthy boy who was named Thomas Matthew. It didn’t hurt to include his father-in-law’s name, as news from London was that he was fading fast. He was too ill to travel to see his new grandson, and the doctors could do no more.
The leaves were falling when news of Hobbs’ death reached the town. The man was hardly in the ground before Matthew was at the office of his solicitor arranging transfer of his name to Hobbs’ thriving business. Leaving Benedict still in charge of their other interests, a manager was appointed to run Hobbs’ leather works. As well as the fine boots and shoes worn by the best people, they also made horse harnesses, and saddles. Using a contact in the County Yeomanry, a contract was secured for the supply of all the leather goods needed by three regiments of foot, and Matthew instructed his new manager to take on more craftsmen. It seemed that life couldn’t be better, then Purity announced that she was with child again. He had never been happier.
A letter arrived a week later, delivered by a horseman, such was its urgency. Something terrible had happened in London, and Benedict was being held in The Clink Prison. The letter was from the manager he had appointed to run Hobbs, suggesting Matthew come to London post haste, and also arrange a lawyer in criminal affairs.
After bribing a jailer to leave them alone, Matthew and the lawyer listened to the distraught Benedict tell his story. Holdaway had arrived at the tanning pits in a foul mood. He accused the Dakin family of robbing him blind, and called Benedict a Puritan pansy, and the son of a pansy murderer. When a scuffle ensued, Holdaway had got his hands around the younger man’s throat. Benedict had reached out for something to use to get him away, and had unfortunately picked up a razor-sharp skinning knife. When he struck his blow, the knife punctured his assailant’s neck, and he had died in moments.
The judge refused to accept his plea of self defence, after arguments from the prosecutor that the Dakin family stood to gain from the death of their partner. He was tried for Capital Murder.
Matthew was able to bid a brief tearful farewell to his brother, before they took him to be hanged at Tyburn.
On his return, Matthew Dakin’s mood was dark indeed. Even his pregnant wife could not shake him from his depressed state. He was now convinced that his family must have been cursed. First his mother murdered, then his father executed. His brother Christian hanged for murder in India, and now Benedict suffering the same fate in London. In his deep, dark thoughts, he wondered how one family be so afflicted by fate.
Work took his mind from the gloom on occasion. A manager had been appointed to run the tannery, and with Hobbs enjoying a booming trade, he could at least concern himself less with business affairs. After Holdaway had been killed, Matthew settled his debts in return for the full control of the company, and made arrangements to visit London four times a year to check on accounts, and outstanding matters.
By the time of Purity’s confinement, he was more settled in his moods, and contemplating the building of a larger house on land he had acquired on the outskirts of the town. When her time came, Purity was in great distress. The town midwife was summoned, and she then sent for Doctor Milton. Matthew was distressed by her screams, and when Milton emerged with his hands and cuffs blooded, he feared the worst. But as the good doctor walked toward him, he heard a baby crying, and gasped with relief. The news was all good. The baby was a boy, and had arrived feet first, causing difficulties with the delivery. But mother and baby were alive, though weak, and they would both recover well.
The baby was named Josiah Matthew, and all agreed he had a remarkable resemblance to his father. Matthew went to see Purity in her confinement room. He had been so scared of losing her, he suggested that they should have no more children. But Purity told him not to concern himself. She felt strong, and would soon be ready. Nonetheless, a wet nurse was sent for, and she was lodged in the attic.
That new arrival lifted his mood completely. He summoned architects and builders to begin the design and construction of a larger house and managed estate, situated on the fine riverside land he owned. It was a time of happiness and prosperity for the Dakin family. Nursery maids and tutors were employed, and they began to return to church for services. As the family grew, Matthew paid for their pew to be enlarged, and agreed a substantial stipend for a new minister to replace the one who was now old and sickly.
With the new house rising from the foundations, he allowed himself the luxury of hoping that he might have escaped the terrible curse that had claimed so many members of his family.
For a number of years, the family lived a settled life. No more children came as Matthew and Purity grew older, but they settled happily into the fine new house, with a large staff of servants and estate workers ensuring a contented, easy life. But Matthew still had plans to keep the business growing, and read a great deal about Canada. There was much opportunity there, whether trading with the natives, or dealing with the French trappers. Furs were being used on fashionable clothes, and beaver pelts and bear skins were increasingly in demand for fine hats resistant to the climate in England. But he felt he was getting too old to embark on a long voyage and the foundation of a trading business so far away.
His oldest son William was now of age to become involved in the Dakin business. Well schooled in financial matters, and a level head on his shoulders. He had also been tutored in French at his father’s insistence. Matthew advised him to immerse himself in studies of Canada, and the demand for furs and pelts. He told him that he would be leaving the following year to establish a trading post in the Dakin name. William was excited at the news, keen to get away from the constant control and supervision of his father, and hoping to make a name for himself in the New World.
As for Thomas, he had expressed an interest in religion from an early age. It was decided that he should go to Cambridge, to study Theology. Matthew promised to arrange that as soon as he could. But another black cloud descended on the family, when Olivia became very ill. She had never expressed any desire to marry, and Matthew respected her wishes to remain in the household as a spinster. It was Purity who told him that his sister had a large growth on her breast. The best doctors were brought from London, but could do nothing. Olivia faded before their eyes, and her death overwhelmed the entire family with sadness.
But after a suitable period of mourning, Matthew got back to business. He equipped William with all he would need for the venture in Canada, and engaged two strong men to travel with him to be his servants over there. At the end of Spring, William said his farewells, and left for the long trip to Plymouth.
He would be taking ship on The Matilda within the month.
It was over five months later when the letter arrived from the agents in London. The Matilda had never arrived in Canada. It was feared lost in a storm, with all aboard.
Matthew retired into his room with a bottle of fine Cognac, and locked the door.
Goody Tuppy could no longer walk without assistance, and had lost all of her teeth. She claimed to be the oldest living person in the town, perhaps even in the county, stating her age as four score and ten years. Whether that was true or not, she certainly looked old enough to warrant the claim. Despite all those years, she loved to sit on a chair in her doorway, and listen to the gossip. Much of it was supplied to her by servants from the Dakin house, when they came into town on errands. When she was fully apprised of recent events, she would happily pass on her stories to any who would listen.
Matthew Dakin was negelecting his business. His dark moods and heavy drinking had left affairs in the hands of managers. Purity was sufering badly with her nerves, and young Josiah was mostly left in the care of a maid, and his tutor. Life in the grand new house had been blighted by the misfortunes that had befallen the family. Goody had a theory of course.
“It must go back to the old master, Isiah. He never conceived any of his children, so their real father is unknown. Surely that must have been a rogue of some measure? I tell you, whoever was the father has a lot to answer for. His sins are being visitied on his offspring, I speak the truth. Is it not written in the Bible?”
That same afternoon, the old widow retired to her bed for a nap, and died peacefully in her sleep.
Thomas returned from his studies at Cambridge three years later. There was no time for him to try to take up religious duties anywhere, as regardless of his youth and inexperience, he was forced to step in to try to manage the failing business. He spent many hours with his father in the study, trying to get some grasp of all the affairs, and visited London to meet with the men managing Hobbs and the tannery. After some weeks had passed, he concluded that his father must be shaken from his mood, and arranged for Josiah to go to into the army, his commision purchased as a junior officer of foot. The tutor had been a lazy person indeed, evidenced by Josiah’s apparent lack of good learning, and he was not suited for business. The army was the best place for him.
Good Queen Anne died the following summer, and a new king, George II, took the throne. By that time the attentions of his son had restored much of Matthew’s good nature, and he returned to the correct and proper running of his business. He also secured a parish for his son to become minister of, finally allowing Thomas to persue his religious life. Generous donations saw Thomas installed as the new minister of All Saints Church in Maldon, and that came with a comfortable residence nearby. What was going to happen to the previous minister was of no concern to Matthew, and his substantial generosity to the Bishop of Chelmsford guaranteed that no questions would be asked.
The new young minister was soon very popular. His fresh sermons and genial manner earned him a good reputation in that growing town. And the wealth of his family didn’t hurt either. It wasn’t long before he had caught the eye of a few local spinsters looking to make a good match for themselves. Thomas eventually settled on the rather portly Arabella Turgoose, the youngest daughter of a wealthy boat-builder. The substantial annual income bestowed upon her by her father had tipped the scales in her favour, so some remarked.
Josiah arrived for the wedding looking fit and handsome in his fine uniform. Army life had suited him well, especially as his regiment was not called upon to engage in any conflict. Matthew and Purity travelled down for the ceremony, and Purity whispered that Arabella had the body for child bearing indeed. His mind ever on business, Matthew took the opportunity to learn something about the boat building industry from Jeremy Turgoose, and paid a visit to his boat yard and workshops. Before his return to barracks, Josiah made calls on many eligible young women in the district, flirting outrageously. He left many flushed cheeks behind him in that town.
Upon their return, Purity remarked that she was happy life was now settled, and the future of their remaining sons secured.
The next month, Matthew wrote to Jeremy Turgoose, and offered to invest heavily in his business, for a one third share. It was accepted readily, and the two men met with lawyers to discuss the terms and sign the necessary contracts.
It had not escaped Matthew’s notice that the elderly Turgoose had no sons to inherit his wealth.
Purity was proved right about Arabella’s child bearing ability, when a healthy grandson was produced within the year. He was named Justin Matthew Jeremy, so as to include both grandfathers. At the end of that same year, Josiah caused a famous scandal, by impregnating the well-known actress, Helena Morley. Some years older than him, she insisted he do the right thing by her, and a hurried wedding was arranged in London. Matthew reluctantly paid for everything, including lodgings for the newleyweds close to Josiah’s regiment.
Now almost seventy years old, Matthew Dakin would let nothing like age slow down his thirst for business. When Turgoose died suddenly, he secured the remaining two thirds of the boat-building business by arranging a pay off to the older daughter and her husband, as well as settling some outstanding bills. Unwilling to spend too much time at the boat yard, he promoted the foreman to the role of general manager, and continued life much as normal, albeit slightly wealthier.
But the condition of Purity concerned him. She had become forgetful, unable to remember the names of long-standing servants, and even mixing up those of her own sons. During the harsh winter that followed, she insisted that William had returned, and she had seen him around the house. The new young doctor suggested summoning a specialist, and came to the house a week later in the company of a famous surgeon from Cambridge. That man suggested that Purity might have a malignancy in her head, affecting her brain. He prescibed a sedative linctus of his own concoction, and bed rest in a dark room. As he received his payment, he advised Matthew to prepare for it to get worse. He also recommended that when that happened, he should double the dosage of the poppy syrup.
In Maldon, Arabella was concerned. Despite happy conjugal relations with her husband, there was no sign of a second child, and young Justin was past his first birthday. Her brother in law had not long ago been happy to receive a son from Helena. The boy had been named Percival Josiah, and had been christened at the church by Thomas. Now Arabella wondered if there was a problem that meant she might no longer conceive. She resolved to discuss the matter with Thomas, when he returned from evening service. Her husband was a devoutly religious man, and she knew he would pray alone once the congregation had left. By the time she had settled little Justin, he should be home.
The two men entered the church as Thomas walked down the aisle toward the door. He smiled as he saw them enter, then his smile faded as he realsed they had cloths tied around their faces. Running straight at him, one pushed him over violently, and the other rushed to the altar to seize the cross, candlesticks, and chalice. By the time they were running back past him to make their escape, Thomas had recovered sufficiently to instictively grab the ankle of one of them. Without hesitation, the ruffian struck the minister about his head with one of the heavy candlesticks, leaving him unconscious as they ran off.
When her husband was much later than expected, Arabella told her maid to go to the church and ask him to come home for his supper. Shortly after, the girl returned in an hysterical state, screaming that the good minister was dead. Refusing to believe the ignorant girl, Arabella wrapped Justin in a shawl and walked to the nearby house of the sexton, where she asked the man to accompany her to find her husband. Thomas was still unconscious, but at least he was breathing. Men were sent for to help get him into the house, and the sexton went to fetch a doctor. As the wounds were cleaned, Thomas roused briefly, mumbling something about two robbers and candlesticks. The doctor looked glum. He feared the skull was broken in more than one place, so he wrapped Thomas’ head tightly in bandages, and told Arabella to keep him comfortable.
Her husband died less than ten hours later, and Arabella cried for two whole days.
After the sombre funeral, Matthew Dakin did not hesitate to offer a home to his daughter-in-law and grandson. He sent carters to collect her belongings, and his new coach and four to bring her and the child back to the town, where she would live in the grand house with him and Purity. It proved to be a very good decision, with Arabella happy to take over as the lady of the house, making up for Purity’s failing mind and poor health. Matthew left for a trip to look over his businesses in London, and to call on his new banker there, to discuss investments.
On his return, he found the servants disressed. One of the maids had a bad cut on her face, and the housekeeper was caring for Justin. Arabella was upstairs outside Purity’s bedroom, calling to her through the door, apparently afraid to enter. Upon seeing Matthew, she relaxed. “Mistress Purity is in a bad way. She hit one of the maids with a hand mirror, and the glass cut the poor girl severely. Perhaps now you are home, you can calm her?” He gave a heavy sigh. “Have the maid taken to see a doctor, and tell her there will be a whole five shillings for her trouble. Leave my wife to me now”.
It made his eyes wet with tears to see his beloved wife so confused and distresed. Her white hair dishevelled, and the staring eyes no longer likethose of the woman he loved so. There was definite recognition in them though, and she put the mirror down on the bed cover. He sat next to her, stroking her head, and she pointed at the bottle containing her sedative. Reaching out to pick it up, he made a decision. Instead of using the spoon to dose her, he pulled the small cork, and handed her the bottle. She moved away, drinking it all down greedily.
Once she was sleeping soundly, he left her room.
Those tears were now running freely down his face.
When a maid found Purity dead on her bed the next morning, nobody was that surprised. The doctor pronounced death by natural causes, and advised Matthew to dispose of the empty bottle of poppy syrup. Matthew knew he had done the right thing for his tortured wife, but could not help but think how his own father had killed his wife, and now he had done the same. Even though his motive was mercy, the shadow of Isiah loomed large in his mind.
Without Purity in the house, Arabella stepped up her control of all the necessary tasks involved in the smooth running of the home. She took over financial affairs, leaving the housekeper disgruntled. Matthew allowed her to engage with the tradesmen, and she proved to be a woman who could bargain hard for fair prices and efficient services. Josiah was still away in the army, now promoted in rank, and showing no interest in taking over the family business. Matthew took Arabella into his confidence, and instructed her in many aspects of managing such a diverse company. He suggested that she should prepare her son as he got older, as Justin was the most likely candidate to take over.
Late the following summer, when her husband was on duty at the barracks, Helena Dakin ran off with a young Italian musician, abandoning young Percival. She left with her few jewels, and all the money in the house. The maid watched them leave, and no note was left for Josiah. If he was surpised or upset by his unfaithful wife’s behaviour, Josiah did not show it. Instead, he contacted his father and Arabella, arranging for his son to go and live in the family home. Araabella was more than happy to help raise the boy, and allowed his faithful maid to accompany him to his new home. Matthew now had both his grandsons under his roof, and vowed to make sure they were brought up well.
On a humid October day, Matthew was walking with his Estate Manager, when he suddenly clasped the side of his head, and fell onto the path. When workmen had got him up to the house and into bed, the doctor was sent for. After seeing his patient had no use of his left arm or leg, and was unable to speak clearly, it was a simple diagnosis that he had suffered a severe stroke. The doctor gave the news to Arabella. “Considering his age, it is remarkable that he survived. He will now need constant care and attention, I’m afraid, though he may well live for many years yet”.
She wrote to Josiah, but he had no time to get away to see his father. He recommended that Arabella appoint managers, or arrange the sale of those parts of the business that she could not cope with. But Arabella was made of sterner stuff, and threw herself into the daily running of the Dakin interests. Even though many of their staff and some of the customers disliked dealing with a woman, they valued the connection with the Dakin family highly enough to overcome their reservations. Arabella hired a nurse to see to her father-in-law, and a strong man to help carry him around. The estate carpenter fashioned a small wheeled cart, and Matthew could be taken out in fair weather, to get fresh air as he was pushed aound the grounds.
England was enjoying a period of peace and prosperity, and Arabella delighted in watching both the boys grow, bonding together more like brothers than first cousins. The town was still growing too, and Matthew’s decision to build the riverside house had been a good one, as the old house had now been surrounded by newly-built dwellings.
Mathew Dakin died peacefully in his sleep at the considerable age of seventy-eight. He left behind one of the wealthiest businesses in the south of England, all of which was inherited by his son Josiah. Arriving for the funeral looking elegant in his new Captain’s uniform, Josiah took Arabella to one side. He told her that he had no intention of leaving his army life for the dull business, and promised to make arrangements to see that her and Justin were financially secure, if she would consider staying on to run the house and dealing with the company affairs. That suited her well, as she was now something of a pillar of the community, and had turned down many offers of marriage since Thomas had been killed. She told him she had no intention of marrying ever again, and promised to care for Percival as if he was her own.
Tutors had been hired to educate both boys, and as they got older, it was clear that Justin had a head for figures, and an interest in mercantile matters. By contrast, Percival was obsessed with following his father into the army, and they agreed that he could go to military college when he was of age.
In the summer of seventeen forty-five, Josiah came to stay for the weekend, to see his family. As they enjoyed a picnic by the river, a messenger arrived. Josiah read the note, and jumped up.
“I have to rejoin my regiment. There is trouble in Scotland”.
With much of the army away fighting in Europe, Josiah’s regiment was sent north with little preparation. Edinburgh had already fallen to the Scottish army led by Charles Stuart, and by the time Josiah’s regiment had crossed the border, there was news of Cope’s defeat by the Scots at Prestonpans. Captain Dakin was nervous indeed. Not only had he never been tested in battle, but with the exception of a few of his sergeants, all of his troops were inexperienced. News was that troops were being recalled from the continent, but that would take time. Meanwhile, the Scots had bypassed Josiah’s position, and invaded England. Josiah spent a nervous winter expecting to be engaged in combat at any time.
After going south as far as Derby, the Scots returned before Christmas, fearful of the large approaching force led by the Duke of Cumberland. As the new year was celebrated in camp, Josiah relaxed, considering himself lucky that the regiment had not been involved. Cumberland was determined to do battle though, and Josiah received orders to prepare his company for the journey north to Inverness. On a misrable cold wet day that April, his stomach turning somersaults with fear, Josiah found himself with the army on some bleak moorland at a place called Culloden.
He was nonetheless cheered by two things. The first was that the English outnumbered the Scots considerably, and also had cannon in numbers. The second was that his regiment was designated a position at the rear, to be called upon as reinforcements if necessary. The artillery exchange was brief but noisy, and soon followed by the ragged charge of the Scots, their advance slowed by the sodden ground of the boggy moorland. Straining to see through the smoke from the musket volleys, Josiah bit his lip as the front ranks clashed. Not knowing what else to do, he drew his sword, if only to appear ready to fight.
But no order came to advance. The Scots were soon wavering, and that later deteriorated into a flight from the battlefield. English troops and cavalry pursued the retreating Scots, inflicting many more casualties. But for a relieved Josiah, it seemed to be all over. Not one of his men had so much as fired a shot.
Following some more time encamped in the area, Josiah received two pieces of good news. His company was to be used to escort Jacobite prisoners back to captivity in the south. They were destined for prison hulks, floating in the Thames estuary close to his home. And when they returned to barracks, he was to be promoted to the rank of Major. Irrespective of the fact that he had not taken part in a single engagement, his presence in the campaign against the Scots was to be rewarded.
When he had handed over the prisoners as instructed, Josiah returned to barracks and instructed his tailor to make him some fine new uniforms, as befitting his elevated rank. He also purchased a large white stallion, so that he would look his best on parade. His previous dull brown horse had never seemed fine enough to him, and it appeared to have lost its wind after the long winter in Scotland. On a sunny morning, he set out to impress his fellow officers with a ride around the area, leaving them lagging behind as they raced across the nearby fields. But the stallion balked at a stone wall, and he was thrown forward out of the saddle.
Lieutenant Foxworth reached the major first, finding him dead from a snapped neck.
Arabella took the news with her usual resolute manner. She arranged the funeral at the town church, and it was attended by the Colonel of the regiment, along with many of his fellow officers. The Colonel told her that he would arrange for Percival to get a commission as soon as he was of age, and with Justin soon ready to leave for college, she reflected that the house would feel empty by the end of the following year.
That December, a letter arrived from the boat yard manager. He had been approached with an offer to buy the business. Arabella thought she should at least investigate, and made the journey to London in snowy weather to meet with her lawyers, and the potential buyer. The offer was more than she had imagined, and getting rid of the boat-building business made sense to her, with both Percival and Justin occupied with other matters. But Percival was now the heir, as the son of Josiah, and she had to seek his agreement to conclude the sale on his behalf.
Still excited by the prospect of a commission, and consumed with his interests at the local military school, Percival was happy to follow her advice. The agreement was signed, with the huge sum doubling the wealth of the Dakin family overnight.
Arabella was very happy. The future of both boys was assured.
Three peaceful years had passed, with the Dakin family still properous under the careful guidance of Arabella. Justin returned from university, and took over the running of the companies, supervised by his mother. He became familiar with the various managers, bankers, and lawyers needed to continue the smooth running of the family interests. It was not long before a new arrival caught his eye. Hope Armitage was the daughter of Reverend Armitage, the recently appointed minister of the town church. They had arrived from Yorkshire that winter, and the rosy-cheeked young woman seemed to appreciate the attentions of the eligible Justin. He paid court on her respectfully, chaperoned by her maiden aunt, and it was soon agreed that the pair would marry when he was twenty-one.
In London, Percival had secured a commission in one of the regiments of foot guards, and was taking to his new role with relish. As well as cermonial duties around the city, he excelled on manoeuvres, and earned a name for himself as a student of military history and tactics too. He avoided the social circles in the capital, and showed no interest in the many balls and gatherings frequented by his fellow officers. After a trip back to the riverside house to visit his family, Justin asked him to deliver some important papers to the home of a London lawyer on his return. At the house, he was introduced to that lawyer’s sister, and was instantly smitten. Agatha Royston was a few years older, but that didn’t seem to bother Percival.
When a double wedding was suggested, Arabella was overjoyed. Reverend Armitage would marry both couples at the same service, and a grand party would be held at the house afterwards. And with the family lawyer now actually becoming part of the family, legal matters could be considered secure for the foreseeable future. After a joyous day, Arabella could not have been happier. She would now have two young women living with her and Justin in the house, and any future children they bore would add to the feeling of the house being alive again. After just three days, Percival had to leave his new bride to return to military duties in London, with Hope and Agatha introduced to the daily running of the house, and management of servants and staff.
As Justin grew in confidence with running the business, Arabella was pleased to resume a social life in the county, accompanied by the wives of the two men she regarded as both being her sons. Within the year, Agatha announced she was carrying a child, and the jealous Hope was praying for the same, with her prayers soon answered
After an examination by the town midwife, it was declared that Agatha was expecting twins. It seemed Percival had indeed done his conjugal duty before returning to military ones. A specialist doctor with a good reputation was summoned from Chelmsford, and his conclusion was the same. Percival was pleased at the news, but concerned for his wife’s safe confinement and delivery. Reverend Armitage came to the house to lead prayers for the unborn children, but Agatha was unconcerned. She announced that she would bear both children happily, with no fear of anything bad happening. As Agatha got close to her time, Hope also made her announcement.
Arabella was delighted.
With two midwives and the Chelmsford doctor in attendance, the twins were delivered during an unusually stormy night. A tiny girl appeared first, and Agatha named her Marjorie, after her late mother. A few minutes later, she delivered a much larger baby, a son she named Oscar Percival. Arabella sent a rider with the news to London, so that Percival would know of the birth the same day. Reverend Armitage was also informed, and arrived at the house by first light to bless the children. The household was excited by the news, and Arabella gave every member of staff two shillings to mark the event. When the rider returned with Percival’s message of delight, they also read that he was not able to get away to see his twins for at least a week.
The wet nurse who had been hired to feed the babies came to see Arabella on the second day. “‘Tis baby Marjorie, mistress. She cannot seem to feed, and she’s not thriving nor resting”. The town doctor examined the baby, and could find no immediate reason for her lack of interest in milk. He tried her with water, but she failed to keep that down too. “I fear a twisting of the stomach, dear lady. Her low weight and small stature seems to suggest a lack of nourishment in the womb too. All you can do is to keep trying”.
Try they did, but baby Marjorie did not last out the week.
Instead of coming home to celebrate the joy of the twin birth, Percival returned for the funeral of his daughter.
Although Goody Tuppy was departed, the town gossips still enjoyed talking about the notable family in the riverside house. More servants meant more sources of information, and Harker the coachman could easily have his tongue loosened by a flagon of cheap ale. The daily life of the Dakin family was known to all, supposedly even their few secrets behind closed doors. But as well as being known, it was also embellished, until the loyal Arabella became known as a dominant harridan, and Percival’s absences in the army were suspected of being a result of his not caring that much for his bride.
The accidental death of Josiah, followed by the passing of the twin Marjorie were greeted with nods and winks, with the older crones regailing new arrivals with the story that Isiah Dakin had fathered none of his children, before murdering his wife for her blatant infidelity.
They were silenced for a while by the arrival of Justin and Hope’s baby. A black-haired healthy boy, who was named James Justin. There were now two baby boys in the family, and the sadness over the loss of little Marjorie diminshed in the busy household. Percival visited his family, bringing news of the French defeat by Clive in India. This was welcome, as it meant his regiment would not be sent to support that war. Arabella enjoyed that busy weekend surrounded by those that she loved, and looked forward to quieter time, with the business continuing to prosper under Justin’s management.
Their home was further improved too, with the engagement of a notable landscape gardener to start to develop the surrounding land into a lovely park with follies and statuary. Justin was keen to create a pleasurable environment for the boys to grow up in, and a nice place for the ladies of the house to take their afternoon strolls. But after less than two years of that idyll, world events interrupted the peace of the land. With Percival now an army captain, all feared he might soon become involved.
Their fears were realised when Percival was granted leave to bid farewell to his family. He had expected to be sent to Europe, where the Prussian allies needed support to oppose the French coalition arranged against them. However, he brought the news that his regiment was setting sail for the Americas, to aid the militia fighting the French there. With his future uncertain, Percival convened a meeting with Justin and Arabella, asking the family’s lawyer to attend with his clerk.
It was his decision to divide the wealth of the family. In law, it was all his to do with as he wished, but he wanted to make sure that the family had no financial complications, should anything happen to him overseas. He instructed his father-in-law to draw up papers allocating half of all assests and land to Justin and his descendants. By doing so, he was assured that his wife and son would be cared for, and that Justin’s family would never be disinherited. After the clerk had finished writing the papers, and they were signed and sealed, the whole family gathered for an early dinner with the children.
The atmosphere at the table was one of enforced jollity. Agatha fought back tears as she realised that she might not see her husband again for years. Arabella kept the conversation flowing with dificulty, not wanting that last evening with Percival in the house to be a sad one.
With the winds against them, the voyage had taken almost twice as long as expected, and it was over sixty days before the vessels carrying Percival’s regiment reached port. He had suffered terribly from seasickness on the journey, and had to be carried off the ship on a litter by order of the surgeon. But there was little time allowed for recovery and recuperation, as the troops were ordered to French Acadia in Quebec, where they were to join a siege under the command of Colonel Monckton.
In early summer, during an assault on the French fort, Percival distinguished himself. During the action, he received a slight musket-ball wound to his forearm. He wrapped his neckerchief around it, and led his company back to safety with few casualties. By the time of the French surrender just two weeks later, his arm injury was festering, and he was running a high fever that gave him an insatiable thirst. One of the native guides was brought to inspect the wound, and applied a disgusting poultice to Pervival’s arm. Through an interpreter, he told the officer to leave it on for one week.
That night, the arm started to itch uncontrollably. Percival was unable to get to sleep in his tent, and could not scratch his arm through the thick bark-covered poultice. So he tore the thing off, and was relieved to be able to scratch at last. Flinging the smelly object outside his tent, he wrapped his arm in some muslin, and finally got to sleep.
By the end of the week, the fever had returned, and his arm was fire-red and grossly swollen. The wound itself had turned a bad colour, and the smell from it could not be covered up by cologne or pomade. He had no option but to visit the regimental surgeon, who reproached him at length for removing the poultice.
“There’s nothing else for it, Captain Dakin. The arm has to come off”.
Despite the involvement of Percival in what would later become known as The Seven Years War, the Dakin family enjoyed a business boom in his absence. War meant increased orders for leather goods, boots, and hats. Military contracts were sought after, bribed for, and secured. Justin took on more staff, and expanded the workshops at Hobbs in London. Arabella could not recall a time of such great prosperity, and she counselled her son to invest all that extra money carefully. Hope was happy to conceive again, and the news of her expectation brought her closer together with Agatha.
The long-awaited news from Percival was tinged with the sadness that he had lost an arm. But Agatha was so relieved that he had not died in combat, she stated she would be contented to have a one-armed husband, as long as he was alive. He reported that he was unable to travel home just yet, as the campaign continued apace, and ships could not be spared to carry home the wounded. The letter had taken months to arrive, and had been written not long after his surgery. Further cheer arrived with the birth of Justin and Hope’s second son, who was named Henry Justin.
Over in Canada, Percival’s recovery was slow, but successful. The surgeon had dosed him heavily with laudunum, before he had been held down by the assistants for the brief but excruciatingly painful removal of his arm above the elbow. Youth and fitness were on his side, and he survived the shock of the operation. But it seemed there could be little more he could do as a soldier, and leader of men. Talking with the Colonel, he sadly wondered if he would have to resign his commission. But the senior officer assured him that as long as he could sit on his horse, he could wave a sword with his good right arm, and inspire his men during battle.
As the army moved around engaging in more battles and skirmishes with the French, he remained in camp charged with overseeing the correct distribution of supplies and ammunition. After some years of this duty, with no sign of returning to England, he was summoned to join his regiment once again, as they headed for Quebec under command of General Wolfe. Percival was dismayed to learn this would mean once more taking ship, but slightly relieved to hear it would be along a river, not out at sea.
With the army closing on the French defences in and around Quebec City, the regiment was informed that it would be necessary to scale the Heights of Abraham, to surprise the enemy. Happy to be on dry land, even with no horse, Percival made the very difficult ascent up the cliff paths with the help of a strong sergeant-major. The next day, they took position on The Plains of Abraham to the left of the assembled army, and it was not long before they were engaged with French-Canadian militia volunteers in large numbers. Spurred on by their sword-waving captain, his company gave an excellent account of themselves, pouring volley after volley of musket fire into the attacking troops.
Sad news followed the battle. General Wolfe had been killed in action. And it was discovered that Montcalm lay mortally wounded in the French camp. But for Percival, it was a great success. He was mentioned in the regimental dispatches for his courage under fire, and told that he would be allowed home on the next ships returning to England before pack-ice stopped their progress along the river to the sea. Still wary of that long voyage to come, he was exceptionally pleased to be able to return to see his wife and son.
By the time they welcomed him back to the riverside house, his son Oscar was seven years old. He did not know his father at all, and he was shy around the one-armed stranger who he was told was his father. Agatha wept at the sight of her thin husband, trying not to look at the pinned sleeve on his uniform coat. Young James was less coy, happy to sit on the knee of the man he called uncle, and listen to stories of war in the far-off lands. Arabella was pleased to have the family all together again, and to hear the news that Percival was to be given a promotion to Major, and a safe job at the regimental headquarters in London.
At the end of the summer, it was announced that King George had died. He was to be succeeded by his grandson, who would be known as George III.
Approaching her sixty-fifth year, Arabella decided to leave the running of the household to one of the younger women, and the older Agatha asked for the role. She would henceforth be known as Mistress, and the servants would all report directly to her. With her husband mostly absent on military duties, she took to her role with gusto. Her first decision was to dismiss Harker. The coachman had said too much, to too many, and was frequently the worse for drink. Justin offered to speak to the man, but Agatha stood firm, and he was sent on his way without a reference.
She then personally undertook the hiring of his replacment, settling on a young Irishman, Fionn O’Hara. He had previously been employed by an aristocrat as a stable-lad, then promoted to assistant coachman.
His references from the Duke of Devonshire were impeccable
Justin was always keen to expand the business, and began to travel to nearby counties, buying up smaller businesses that had trades related to his company. Saddle and harness-makers were among his preferred purchases, along with various small hat-makers as far afield as Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Once he had control of all those, he started to centralise production by opening larger workshops in his home county, and employing and training many new workers as he did so. In no time he had a sizeable share of the market for such goods, and was in a position to dictate supply and prices over a large part of southern England.
Percival did his part too, suggesting that military contracts be given to the family firm, and using his position in the army to make the bribes and arrangements that delivered them. By the end of the year, Justin had been approached to stand for parliament, an offer he rejected out of hand. He knew all too well that association with one of the prominent political parties might well upset some of his customers, and was determined to keep the Dakin family neutral.
At the riverside house, Agatha busied herself with being in charge. Hope was happy to care for Oscar alongside her own children, and he would soon be leaving for school anyway. Arabella helped too of course, relishing her role as the grandmother figure to all. Young James was still insistent that he wanted a career in the military, and he was told that could be discussed once he had finished his schooling. Rather than employ tutors, it was agreed that both boys would attend the same boarding school, starting next term.
The presence of the genial new coachman had caused a stir with the household staff. Fionn flirted openly with the younger housemaids, and the scullery-girl was obsessed with him. But he avoided any real entanglements, as he did not want to lose the easy job as coachman to the Dakin family. In truth, he was little used. Master Justin travelled mostly by mail-coach, and Fionn’s duties were limited to taking the ladies of the house around the county to socialise with other wealthy families. And with her husband away most of the time in London, Agatha used the coach more than most.
It had not gone unnoticed that Agatha also used the family coach for pleasure trips in fine weather. That started with family picnics at the estuary coast, and later became rides on her own which she delighted in, saying the afternoon air was invigorating. Town gossips lapped up the sight of the mistress being driven around by the dark-haired, green-eyed coachman, and rumours were soon spreading that he was more than just a servant to Mistress Agatha.
They could not know that their suspicions were unfounded. Her move from being a lawyer’s daughter to mistress of a fine house, married to a very rich man, was not something she intended to jeopardise. She saw Fionn as nothing more than a servant, someone employed to do his duties as instructed. Against expectations, it was actually Hope that found herself tingling and blushing whenever the young Irishman helped her into the coach.
Once the older boys were away at school, young Henry received all the attention, becoming rather pampered and spoilt as a consequence. Without a son to visit, and a wife who was becoming bossy and above herself, Percival spent more and more time in London, eventually taking a mistress. She was given fine rooms in the city, and all of her expenses were paid by him too. By the end of that summer, they were seen around together at social functions, with all pretence abandoned. Lack of attention from her husband also guaranteed that Agatha had no more children, something else noticed by both the family, and the gossiping staff.
A letter was received from the school, regretting that they wished James to be removed from their charge. It seemed he was disruptive, badly-behaved, and a bully. That came as something of a shock to his parents, and it was decided that he should be allowed to go to military school in the south instead. By contrast, Oscar proved to be a dedicated scholar. He was fast to learn, and skilled in all subjects, especially mathematics.
Then Hope had her own news. With young Henry not yet five years old, she was expecting another baby. Justin was too busy to even think about the fact that he had not been around a great deal, and that his business trips now kept him away from home longer than ever before.
But Arabella was wiser, though she did not approach Hope on the matter. No good would come of accusations or suspicions. And an admission would only serve to shatter the peace of the family.
So she kept quiet, and gave Hope her congratulations.
When Hope’s new baby arrived, the family celebrated as normal. The boy was small but healthy, and he was named Abraham Justin. The mop of black curly hair and vivid green eyes were never mentioned, and Justin appeared to take to the new arrival without a second thought.
But Arabella and Agatha were watching Hope much more closely now.
Then when suspicion among the servants was at its height, Fionn asked permission to marry Molly, the scullery girl. As everyone assumed that the girl was with child, the marriage was allowed, and the happy couple moved into the coachman’s lodgings above the stable block. Arabella was relieved, but still uncertain whether or not the marriage was a contrivance to divert gossip and suspicion about the coachman and Hope Dakin.
Percival was rarely at home back then, but at least his son was still proving to be a reliable student. And James was flourishing well at the military school, with excellent reports arriving about him on a regular basis.
News from London was that Percival was still flaunting his mistress with abandon, and trying to get in with the social circle around the Royal Court. With the king being mocked, and accused of all sorts of eccentricity and madness, the power game behind the scenes was busier than ever.
That summer, Justin consolidated his business interests by investing in some new inventions that were changing the weaving industry. For the first time, the Dakin family became involved in the cotton trade, and Justin decided to travel to the West Indies and the American colonies, where he would invest in plantantions in an effort to control his supplies. After a long family discussion, it was agreed that Arabella and Agatha would oversee the business during his absence, assisted by the family lawyer and bankers.
With the leaves beginning to fall, Justin said his farewells, and took ship to America.
The Dakin family was now left with only women in charge. Percival still took no interest in commercial matters, and Agatha hardly heard from him bar an occasional letter asking after the health of everyone.
If Hope was missing her husband, it didn’t show. With a nurse caring for little Abraham, she resumed her round of social visiting, always using the coach and four driven by Fionn. When James returned from school for the holidays, she showed little interest in his tales of military life, and failed to notice that he and Oscar no longer seemed to get on. With the other women of the house occupied with business, the two boys spent most of the holiday apart. Oscar sat studying in his room, while James rode around the estate on a fine pony bought for him by Justin.
Life for the Dakins carried on much as it always had.
When news arrived from America, they discovered that Justin had been very ill with a fever. Doctors there had told him it was the ague, and might return. By the time the letters arrived, Justin had recovered, and sent news of the purchase of a huge plantation in the southern colonies. But he also told of trouble there, with many colonial settlers unhappy with taxation and trade laws coming from England. He predicted that there might even be civil unrest. But he had already bought substantial amounts of cotton that was being sent back by ship, and the thought of disturbances affecting production meant that it could be sold at huge profits once it arrived.
Arabella wrote the necessary letters to deal with the distribution of the cotton to the new mills part-owned by the family, and after meetings with the lawyers, the expected income was expected to be vast.
Unknown to the family in Essex, things were going awry with Percival. He had made bad choices of contacts, and his expected favour at court had not happened. Then his young mistress left for a new and more influential lover, resulting in Percival taking to drink. He was usually to be found the worse for brandy most days, and there was talk around the regiment that he would be asked to resign. When he was unable to stand to take parade one morning, the colonel wrote to him requesting his resignation.
Disgraced socially in London, Percival returned to the family home. Agatha was shocked at the appearance of her husband. Bloated, slurring his speech, and drinking brandy at breakfast, she was only too pleased that he never asked to come to her room any longer. Arabella tried to speak to him, but he became reclusive and stayed in his study at all times. The servants would find him slumped in the chair, not even having bothered to change his clothes, or retire to bed.
He was fast becoming an embarrassment to the family.
In the early Spring of the year seventeen seventy-five, life changed dramatically for the Dakin family, and their peace was shattered. At the end of a long and busy life, Arabella Dakin succumbed to old age, and was mourned by all. And after almost killing himself through strong drink, Percival saw the light, and slowly began to crawl out of his alcoholic haze. Long walks around the estate helped clear his head, and he sought the advice of Oscar to finally be able to assist him with the running of the family business in England.
Justin was planning his second trip to the Americas, where managers and overseers looked after the cotton plantation, and arranged for the raw material to be sent to England. He had never fully recovered from the fevers he had contracted there, but was reluctant to leave the booming trade in the hands of employees and agents. Following Arabella’s funeral, he left once again, despite rumours of serious trouble brewing in the colonies.
Then on an afternoon ride to see Miss Wiltshire at her home, Hope was bady injured when a broken wheel hub caused the coach to crash. Both her legs were broken just above the ankle, and Fionn carried her all the way back into the house before leaving again on horseback to summon the doctor.
James was by then an officer in the army, and he returned home briefly with news that his regiment was to be sent to the American colonies to deal with unrest. He said his farewells before reporting back to barracks, distressed to find his mother so gravely injured. With Henry due to join the army any day soon, and young Abraham away at school, the huge house felt strangely empty.
The local doctor sent for a surgeon from Colchester, and he brought an assistant to help try to set Hope’s broken legs. Even after copious doses of laudunum, the poor woman screamed loud enough to be heard throughout the house. Despite strong splints tied securely to both legs they could do little to alleviate her pain, and there was no chance of her being able to stand on them. With the coach undergoing repairs, Fionn was brought into the house to carry her around, and her maid had to see to her every need.
There was news from London of open warfare in the colonies, and the shock of a defeat by the colonials. Agatha was worried. Justin would have arrived not long before the fighting, and James was still on board ship on his way to what was fast becoming an all-out war. But within the week, things were happening at home that diverted their attention from colonial problems.
Hope’s legs had become infected, and when the doctor returned, he shook his head gravely. In his opinion, amputation was the only answer. Agatha sent for a specialist from London, regardless of the expense. That serious surgeon broke the bad news that the infection had already spread too far, and he feared amputation now would serve no purpose.
During the first week in May, Hope Dakin died in her bed. Percival decided not to try to send a letter informing Justin of his wife’s death. He had enough to worry about over there as it was.
For the family business, war was good in parts, bad in others. Military contracts helped sell more leather goods, and cotton production was increasing to meet demand too. But raw materials were not arriving, and there was no news from Justin. Oscar came back from a trip to London declaring that the finances of the Dakin family were stronger than ever. So Percival decided that the riverside house would be improved with the addition of a Palladian facade, and would henceforth be known as Dakin Hall. Since he had sworn off strong drink, he had immersed himself into the running of the estate, leaving most of the company concerns to his son Oscar.
As the year drew to its end, Agatha and her husband and son were now the only Dakins resident in the family home, with no news at all from the Americas.
The death of his sweetheart Hope left Fionn in a difficult situation. Her favours had guaranteed him an easy life, and secret gifts enabled him to live well. Now treated in every respect like any other servant, he took to stealing and pilfering whenever he got the chance. Anytime he was in the house he stole small ornaments, and extra food from the kitchens, which he sold in the town. The local gossips were active, and he knew it wouldn’t be too long before news reached the big house that he was known to be selling stolen goods.
Molly had no idea of her husband’s criminal activities. Although many had presumed she had been with child when she and Fionn married, she had not been. And even after the years of marriage, she had produced no children. Being the wife of the coachman suited her well, and she had been happy to leave her job in the scullery. But there was little to do as a wife, and she knew full well her husband was not romantically attached to her. Her life became one of boredom and routine.
So when Fionn disappeared one night, taking the mantel clock he had collected from repair, and a fine roan mare from the stables, she was not unhappy.
When Fionn was discovered to have made off with the horse and clock the constable was informed, though it was feared he would be well out of the county by now. By selling them in London, together with the expensive saddle, he could easily afford passage to Ireland and be left with a hefty sum to boot. Molly was questioned, and the lodgings searched. But they knew better than to blame the poor illiterate woman. Instead, they gave her a job attending to the many fires in Dakin Hall, and allowed her to share a room in the house with her replacement as scullery girl.
Agatha remarked that Molly seemed to be exceptionally happy once again.
When a letter finally arrived from Justin, Percival almost took to drink once again. News was that the colonies were in turmoil, with the British Army unable to keep order, or to win any significant battle against the growing colonial army. This was compounded by more news that the French were set to enter the war on the side of the colonists. That did not bode well for the cotton plantation, or the arrival of more raw materials for the cloth weaving factories. On top of that, Justin was ill, at least at the time of writing. The fevers had returned, and he had taken to his sick-bed.
Fortunately, Agatha managed to shake her husband from his gloom by suggesting he go to London and consult with his lawyer and bankers. The new coachman, William Frost, was instructed to take Percival the next morning, and to see to his transport needs whilst in the capital. The leather and hat businesses were managing well with reliable staff, and Oscar would stay behind to control the company affairs from the house.
There was still no news of James. His regiment would have arrived in the American Colonies by now, but they had to face the fact that any letter would take weeks to arrive, if not longer. By then the news it contained could be irrelevant. Henry had also joined his regiment, serving with the heavy cavalry. The family had paid for his mount and uniforms, as well as a fine sword and a brace of pistols. The strong young man cut a fine figure as a junior officer, and obviously loved the military life.
Following what was fast becoming a family tradition, Abraham returned from schoool on holiday, expressing a desire to also seek a career as a soldier, once his education was complete. Agatha agreed, but only if Oscar decided to marry, and hopefully carry on the name by fathering children. She said that they could not allow all the male members of the family to serve in the military, or the business would never flourish.
His choice of bride was rather surprising. Despite being the richest and most eligible bachelor in the county, Oscar chose to court the oldest daughter of John Marley, a seed merchant in the town. Marley offered a dowry as tradition dictated, but Oscar refused, claiming to be in love with the girl. Percival returned from London in time to raise objections, but Agatha supported her son. Prudence Marley might have been overly stout, with the complexion of a farm girl, but she was of solid county stock, and would make a loyal and obedient wife.
At her son’s request, the wedding was a quiet affair, with no huge function. Agatha welcomed her new daughter-in-law to Dakin Hall, and showed her the routines and duties required of her as a senior member of the household. Oscar had always been very serious and studious, as well as dull and scrupulous in business affairs. But the arrival of Prudence showed his lighter side, and the house felt happier than it had in a long time. Despite her humble background in trade, Prudence took to her wifely role with relish, making herself very popular with the servants and estate staff for her respectful attitude and fair dealings with them. She even declined the services of a personal maid, dressing herself each day, and tending to her own needs.
Following his discussions in London, Percival updated his wife and son. As the family fortune was divided equally between him and Justin, there would be a great problem should they need to realise assets, or sell off anything that was not profitable. All legal agreements required the signatures of both men, and Justin’s presence in the Carolinas was far from satisfactory. Oscar proposed they write to Justin, and ask for his signed power of attorney, enabling them to rightfully manage all affairs in his absence. That was agreed, and the letter carefully drafted.
Knowing it would take many months for any news to return, Percival continued overseeing the improvements to the house and grounds. When it was near completion, all the local gentry were invited to a grand ball, which Percival would use to show off the luxury of The Hall, and let everyone know just how established and wealthy the Dakin family were. That would guarantee the loyalty of his business contacts, and customers too.
On the night of the ball, a curly haired, green-eyed man boarded a French ship at Cherbourg, bound for the Caribbean.
Fionn had decided to try his luck in the Americas.
One morning at breakfast, Prudence announced she was with child, to the delight of the family. However, her thunder was stolen later that day, when a letter arrived for Percival. It was from the manager of the Carolina plantation, sent not long after the one from Justin. He regretted to inform them that Master Dakin had died of the ague, and had been buried in the grounds of the plantation house. He also asked for instruction about what he should do now that his employer was dead.
Although much saddened by Justin’s death, Oscar and Percival discussed the implications. The letter had been sent prior to the recent escalation of hostilities, so for all they knew their plantation may well have been abandoned, or captured by the Colonial Army by now. With the war hotting up there was no question of either man taking ship to America, so it was decided to send a letter to the manager telling him to do his best to keep things running. Given the delay before he received that, the future of their business in the colonies was uncertain, to say the least.
Prudence expressed satisfaction that the plantation might be no more. She hated the use of the African slaves as workers there, and was outspoken in her dislike of all slavery, which she claimed went against the will of God. Oscar shared her sympathies to some degree, but also knew that the investment had been huge, and any losses would be substantial. Secretly, he was relieved. The company was rich enough to take the loss, and the future of the cotton trade in America appeared to be doomed anyway. He would work on the basis that they would be unable to continue there, and concentrate on his profitable ventures in England.
There was no news of James until after the birth of a daughter to Prudence. She was named Charity Elizabeth Dakin, and was a bonny girl with fair hair. Prudence declined the attentions of both wet nurse or nanny, determined to be a mother in every respect. The letter from James was of course out of date, but he stated that he was fit and well, and stationed as part of the garrison at Boston. It was decided that the death of his father would be kept from him, rather than upset him when he was called upon to fight in a war. But during that summer, Boston was abandoned, and the colonists declared independence from Britain, with the French now openly supporting them with troops.
Such bad news for the country was nonetheless very good news for business.
The rest of that year was consumed with getting on with life as usual, and hearing nothing but bad news from America. The newspapers were reporting numerous defeats, and the expected victory against disorganised colonials had been anything but. At Christmas, Henry arrived home on leave, bringing the welcome news that his cavalry regiment would not be sent to America. Young Abraham was obsessed with his older brother, wanting to hear nothing but tales of the exciting life in the military. As he grew older, it was obvious to all but the blind that the youngest son bore no resemblance to his brothers. Although that fact did not go without remark among the gossips in the town, it was never even hinted at by anyone at Dakin Hall.
Early in the new year, Oscar agreed to buy the seed business from his father-in-law. This would enable Prudence’s parents to have a peaceful and early retirement to a cottage on the estuary. With both younger daughters now betrothed too, John Marley felt his years of hard work had earned him some peace. Now that the Dakin’s owned one of the largest seed merchants in the south, Oscar and Percival agreed to expand their business into buying up arable land. With Justin’s death, they no longer needed two signatures, and Percival sold off the cotton and weaving interests at a profit. Even taking into account the sum lost in the Carolinas, they were still an exceedingly wealthy family.
After a surprisingly easy voyage, Fionn had not tarried long in the West Indies before taking another French ship north. A fast sloop, able to avoid or outrun the British naval blockade, which in itself was being harrassed by French warships. Arriving in territory held by the Colonial Army, and his funds all but exhausted, he volunteered to serve with General Washington’s Continental forces against the British. Although the pay was low, and often scarce, he was able to get meals and clothing, as well as being supplied with a musket and ammunition. Having lied about being a soldier previously, he had to watch and learn from his new comrades in arms.
Rumour had it that they were marching to the siege of Boston.
By the time Fionn arrived in Boston, he was suffering from the cold weather, and his boots were worn out. Pleased to hear that the British had already withdrawn from the city, he made it his first task to slip away from his company to steal some new boots. Breaking down the flimsy shop door of a loyalist boot-maker, he threatened the terrified old man with his musket until he was provided with boots of a good fit. They were old ones, left for repair, but suited him well enough.
James was on a ship that had departed from the harbour at Boston. He was pleased to be leaving the place. The conditions during the recent siege had been bad, with fevers abundant, and lack of food. Overlooked by the Colonial Army, they had been subjected to occasional artillery bombardment as they manned the defences around the perimeter. They made a token defence until the ships could be loaded, and then they were told to board at the last minute, once the winds were suitable. The Colonel told him that they were heading for Canada, and there might still be sea-ice further north.
Oscar had a plan, and he outlined it to his father. He intended to buy up as much suitable arable land as he could find in the county, for the planting of wheat and barley, ready for the next year’s harvest. Rather than lease the land to tenant farmers, he would appoint managers to work for the Dakin family, so that the family received all of the profits.
The pair headed out in the coach with bags of coin, together with two well-built footmen armed with pistols, in case of highwaymen or robbers. William Frost was given a blunderbuss to keep next to his seat too. The care of the house was left to Agatha and Prudence, with the running of the business in the charge of their lawyer.
The sight of coin proved popular with landowners and struggling or elderly farmers around the county. Oscar had soon purchased many existing farms, small and large, as well as unused land suitable for crop cultivation. That would need work to clear it for planting, and contractors were also taken on. Deposits were given, with the promise of full pay on completion of the work. Attending to his contracts and paperwork whilst staying in an inn near the Suffolk border, Oscar told his father that he estimated the first profits to be realised within two years.
Back at Dakin Hall, Prudence could keep her secret no longer, and told Agatha she was with child again. Agatha smiled at the news. With little Charity still so small, Ocscar had not wasted any time.
After landing in Nova Scotia, James and his company were assigned to become part of General Howe’s advance on New York. Soon back on board ship, they set sail for Manhattan, where the campaign finally saw some success, as Washington had to withdraw his smaller army into prepared defences. Fionn had still never fired a shot in anger, though he talked a lot of bravado. Sensing panic in his colleagues when faced with the British force, he seriously considered deserting. But there was nowhere to go, so he stuck it out hoping the Colonial Army would retreat.
Buying up farms and land was not always so easy. Most had long-term tenant farmers. The news that they were no longer required by the Dakin family did not go down well. Almost all only had an agreement by either tradition or handshake, so Oscar and Percival were under no obligation to retain them, or to pay compensation. Such as it was, any notice given to those unfortunates was not compulsory, and they had few rights in law. Of course, none of that concerned either of the Dakin men. Their thoughts were only of business and profit.
Near the end of their trip around the county, they received a message from a landowner. He has sold them two small farms near Thaxted, and sent a letter to them at the nearby inn where they were staying. One of the tenants had been sucessfully evicted, but the second was refusing to go. He had threatened to spoil the land with tar, and was barricaded in his house along with his family. Oscar decided that it might be best to visit the troublesome farmer, and pay him off to avoid further bother.
The farmhouse looked like little more than a hovel, and the nearby barn was in a sad state of repair too. Oscar and Percival agreed that it should not take too much coin to pay this impoverished man to seek employment elsewhere. They left the coach, and walked up the rutted path, calling to the farmer to show himself. In reply, the furious man poked a double-barrelled fowling piece through the open shutter of a window, and discharged the weapon at them, firing high.
But not high enough.
Percival was closer, and received a charge of birdshot in his throat, directly under his chin. Oscar was also hit on the side of his face, but was able to keep upright. The footmen they had brought from Dakin Hall came rushing forward at the sound of the shot. They managed to burst in and disarm the man as he frantically tried to reload.
But it was too late for Percival, who lay dead on the filthy, straw-covered ground. And despite the coachman rushing Oscar to Thaxted to see a doctor, his right eye could not be saved.
The rest of the year passed with a solemn mood presiding in the Dakin household. Although Agatha was not unduly distressed by the death of her once wayward husband, Oscar’s mood had darkened after the loss of his eye. Though he still treated his family well, he became unduly harsh in his business dealings, and his desire to expand them knew no bounds. Wearing one or other of many eye-patches lovingly fashioned by his wife, his now fearsome visage sent chlls through anyone encountering him.
The footmen who had tackled the farmer were handsomely rewarded for their bravery. The man had never got to trial, after blows from the two men had broken his skull in many places. The largest and strongest of the pair, John Simpson, was given a new role as bodyguard to Oscar. His smart uniform was accompanied by a fine pistol, and a short cutlass. That man’s presence during any trade dealings was guaranteed to stop any potentially violent argument.
Oscar was mellowed slightly by the arival of his second child, a son. The boy was named Oliver Percival, in a break with Dakin tradition. Both mother and child were fine and healthy, but Oscar stayed at home for some time after the birth, leaving his ventures in the care of managers. Early the following year, Henry announced his intention to marry the daughter of his regimental colonel, young Esmerelda Pine. The spring wedding in London was a grand affair, and the match saw Henry soon promoted to Captain.
In spite of her protests, Esmerelda was brought to reside at Dakin Hall. She found the place too provincial after the social life of London, and made her displeasure known. Agatha took no time putting her in her place, but the resulting atmosphere cast its own shadow over life for the Dakins. That summer, Abraham finished his education, and entered the army as a junior officer. Using contacts as was their habit, Oscar managed to get him assigned to the prestigious Highland Division, and he left for Scotland to join his regiment.
Not long after that, there was news from james. The British had all but lost the war against the American colonies, and he was sure that he would be coming home soon. The letter was old news of course. The family was all-too aware that the war was dragging on.
By the time he finally arrived home, James was unrecognisable as the young officer that had left all those years earlier. Thin and pale, looking more than his age, and shocked at the news of what had ocurred during his absence. Despite being close in age to Oscar, he looked ten years older. After being granted some leave to recuperate, he went back to his regiment with the rank of Major. The loss of the colonies did not unduly affect the family business though. People still needed leather goods and hats, and the crops had done well too, after a slow start. Getting rid of the cotton interests had proved to be a wise move, and propserity was still the norm for them.
One balmy afternoon, Charity was playing with her younger brother by the new ornamental lake. Prudence was bored, listening to Esmerelda complain about the lack of fashionable clothes and hats in the town’s shops. She was asking whether she might be allowed to send a letter to her London hat-maker when a scream came from the side of them. Chasing a hoop rolled by Oliver, Charity had fallen backwards into the lake, and was nowhere to be seen. Oliver was screaming uncontrollably. Although unable to swim, Prudence did not hesitate to wade into the lake, shouting to Esmerelda to take charge of her son.
As the distraught woman waded deeper, reaching under the water to try to find her daughter, Esmerelda snatched up young Oliver and ran for the house to summon help, shouting as loud as she could once within sight of the main doors. Alerted by her cries, Oscar ran out with two footmen, William Frost the coachman, and his bodyguard Simpson, all sprinting for the lake. He ran straight into the water, followed by his retainers. Simpson reached down into the green water, and waved his hands around in circles, finally coming into contact with something. Helped by Frost, he hauled the lifeless body of Prudence Dakin up onto the bank, her heavy clothes sodden and wrapped around her. Oscar and one of the footmen were swimming further out, constantly bobbing under, trying to find little Charity.
It was almost sunset when they found the child, after over two hours of searching.
Oscar carried his daughter’s body up to the house. His eye patch had come off in the water, and his servants were shaken by the terrible expression on his face. She was taken into the morning room, where Prudence lay completely white, and still wet. Other servants had retrieved her body on a small hand-cart. With his voice calm, Oscar thanked the men involved in the attempted rescue, and promised them rewards.
Then he went up to his son’s room, and sat on the bed next to the sleeping boy.
By the time Fionn’s company got to the fight at Yorktown, it was all over. The British had surrendered, and Washington had won the war. He had managed to get through the whole war without once firing a shot in the direction of the British, and had emerged on the winning side. Robbing a few dead bodies along the way had provided him with some coin, and a couple of fine pocket-watches, but life in the new America, victorious or not, held little appeal for him.
He managed to slip away quietly, selling his booty to pay for passage on a French ship bound for Haiti. There was a good living to be made there, as a slave overseer on sugar plantations. He kept his musket, and a sword and pistol that he had looted from a dead officer.
They would come in useful down there, he was sure.
During the years following defeat in America, life carried on as normal for the Dakin family. Agatha did her best to try to make Esmerelda take some responsibilty around the house, but following the birth of her son Richard Henry, in 1780, she had taken to her bed claiming an attack of the vapours, and was rarely seen again downstairs. The infant was left in the care of a nurse, a kind lady who treated him as her own. With Oliver at school, the now sullen Oscar remained fixed on business, and refused to disuss the prospect of remarrying. Running the household fell completely to Agatha, who remained doughty, despite her advancing years.
New gossips in the fast-growing town still made much of the misfortunes that had befallen the richest family around, and one toothless widow spoke openly of The Dakin Curse, brought on by the unfaithful Clara, and her murder at the hands of her husband Isiah. But with the vast majority of the local people reliant on the Dakin businesses and custom for employment or trade, they never received any open criticism to their faces.
In the summer of 1789, James visited from London with shocking news. There had been an uprising in France, and the common folk had taken control of that country. Wealthy landowners and noblemen had been imprisoned, some even killed. Europe was in uproar, and there were rumours of war. Oscar liked the sound of that. War was good for business, even if it meant many of his own family might have to leave to fight in it. He began to make plans to increase leather production, and to buy more farmland for the food that would be needed. At the suggestion of one of his banker friends in London, he bought the controlling interest in a gunpowder works too.
Oscar Dakin would welcome war with relish.
News from the continent became increasingly worrying. The French Revolutionary Army was invading neighbouting countries, their King was said to be in custody, and many aristocrats were trying to flee across to England. This turmoil across The Channel was all music to Oscar’s ears, as he wisely invested in anything needed for the impending war effort. The mlitary men in the family were each recalled to duty. In Scotland, Abraham had secured a move to the Scots Greys as a junior offcer. He wrote asking for the funds to purchase his new unitfom, and a fine grey horse to fit in with the regimental tradition.
Life in Haiti had proved to be idyllic for Fionn. He had easily secured a job as an overseer, and showed a ready ruthlessness when dealing with the slaves under his control. Quick to use the whip, and also to avail himsself of the forced pleasures of young female slaves, he became hated by all, even by some of his colleagues. After an argument about a card game, he had killed the chief overseer in what was judged to be a fair fight. The plantation manager was happy to promote him immediately, and he moved into the comfortable bungalow with its own house slaves. He selected some of the youngest women to move in with him too, providing himself with a veritable harem.
Both the slaves and the manager began to call him Fionn le Roi, at least when he was out of earshot.
The expected war with the French began with a campaign in the Low Countries. James received orders to go with his regiment, but Henry and Abraham stayed in England. It was late in 1793 when news of a defeat by the French at Hondshcoote reached Dakin Hall. But as for what had happened to James, nobody seemed to know. As the family anxiously waited for news, the continuing war spread to the colonies, as each nation tried to protect and secure their wealthy assets abroad.
It was a cold February the following year when James returned. Shaken and exhausted, he had survived the battle, but his mind was elsewhere.
On a bitterly cold afternoon that December, Jarvis the butler heard the large bell ringing at the main door. He slipped on his formal frock coat, and went to open it. In front of him was a short girl, ginger curls bursting out from under her small bonnet, and a face white and frozen with the cold. She managed a cursory curtsey, and put down a cloth bundle as she handed him a letter. He saw it was addressed to Oscar Dakin, so showed the girl how to enter by the trades entrance at the back, telling her to wait in the kitchen.
Oscar read the letter twice, shaking his head. It was from Abraham, and introduced the girl as his wife, Aileen Mackenzie. She was the daughter of a tavern-keeper, and barely sixteen years old, almost half Abraham’s age. She was at least three months with child, his child, and Abraham had done the decent thing, with a hurried wedding in a parish church outside of Edinburgh. He had then sent the girl south by mail coach to London, and from there to Colchester, where he had told her to hire a carter to bring her to Dakin Hall. He pleaded with Oscar to care for her, and to welcome her into the family. She could read and write, he said, and would prove to be a loyal wife, he was sure.
Jarvis was told to bring the girl to the study, where she sat gazing in fear at Oscar’s eye patch, and disfigured face. He explained the domestic situation to her, and told her that Agatha and Esmerelda would have to take charge of her, to educate her in the ways of a lady of consequence. Not knowing what to say or do, and exhausted from her journey, Aileen showed Oscar the cheap wedding band on her finger, and thanked him for his kindness. As she was led away by Mrs Knight, the new housekeeper, Oscar called out that she should be fed, bathed, and given a change of clothing.
Fionn heard the news two days after the event. There had been trouble to the south. The slaves were in revolt, and white men were being killed. Houses and crops had burned, and rumour was that a substantial slave army was roaming the countryside almost unopposed. At the plantation where he worked, inland from Cap Haitien, the owners and managers were getting a militia together to defend their interests, as they themselves prepared to escape the island. All the slaves were now ordered to be shackled or tied together at all times, even when working in the fields. Any white man willing to fight for pay was being employed as extra guards, from the pickpockets of the coastal towns, down to released prisoners and local vagrants. Fionn was now in charge of a team of unsavoury characters, all well-armed, and edgy and nervous too.
Nobody was prepared for the sheer size of the slave army that quickly moved across the north of the island, killing and burning as they went. On Fionn’s plantation, they felt secure behind their well-constructed defences, but with some sixty white men available to fight, and most untested in battle of any kind, the news that almost one hundred thousand were against them left them in no doubt what to do. They chained the slaves together inside their huts, and ran for the coast. Fionn was hoping to get on a ship to anywhere, with enough plunder taken from the plantation house to pay his passage. But with an old winded horse, and the whole area in turmoil, he was forced to hide in some undergrowth, still a good distance from any port.
They found him still sleeping, but their shouts woke him up. He knew better than to try to buy them off, so made a fight of it as best as he could. The first three to appear through the thick leaves were shot down by his musket and pistols. But there was no time to reload, as the next dozen or more charged him. In moments, he was hacked to pieces, by ex-slaves using the very pangas they had once been given to cut the sugar cane.
They left his body where it was, took his weapons and horse, and moved on.
Agatha was bleeding again. As she woke up that morning, she could sense the sticky mess between her legs, and under her nightwear. What had started weeks earlier as an annoying occasional drip, was fast becoming a nightly flood. For days now, it had got so bad that she had instructed the maids to just burn the sheets, as they could no longer get them clean. Standing in front of her dressing mirror, she ran a hand around her gaunt face, feeling the hard jawbone stretching the skin. She could put it off no longer.
A message was sent to the surgeon in Colchester. He should attend at his earliest convenience.
The surgeon examined Agatha in the presence of her maid, to maintain decorum. He pronounced his diagnosis of a growth in her womb with a solemn expression. She had guessed as much already, given the unusual swelling of her lower belly, and the cramping pains that often preceded the loss of blood. There was little he could do, as he feared cutting her open would undoubtedly kill the poor lady. He left her a strong potion for the pain, and advised her to take a double dose when she was very uncomfortable.
Agatha had no intention of dulling her senses with the opium compound. Instead, she sent for notebooks, and set about writing down all she knew of the history of the Dakin family. Letters and journals stretching back to the time of Isiah Dakin had been discovered in a box in the attic during the last renovations, and she had kept them safe in her room, locked in a trunk. There was also an old family Bible, with notations of the births, marriages, and deaths that had preceded her arrival at the riverside house. Agatha added two loose pages to that, completing the family tree with what she knew up to that time.
Aileen proved to be a wonderful additon to the household. With Esmerelda as good as useless as lady of the house, the pregnant girl studied carefully under the instruction of Agatha. She took it upon herself to spend time with the cook and her assistants, to speak to Jarvis about his function, and to encourage the housemaids with her friendliness and down to earth manner. Despite her youth and condition, she fast became very popular, even with Oscar. The one stumbling block was her strong Scottish accent, which necessitated her having to constantly repeat herself when speaking. Agatha employed a tutor to travel daily from Colchester, so he could educate the girl in how to make herself better understood, and also give her some encouragement in reading so as to better herself. Her presence was just what Agatha needed to try to fight her terminal illness, and to hope to live long enough to see the Dakin family well settled.
Henry arrived home on leave, startled by the news that there was a new wife in the house, and a child soon to be born. But he was more concerned about the condition of James. The confusion in his mind had not healed, and he spent much of his time walking around the estate, as if in a dream. No less than three doctors had examined him carefully, and all agreed there was nothing to be done. He had been given his own rooms in the new East Wing, and a young man had been employed to stay with him at all times, lest he wander away and get lost. Henry was also appalled at the behaviour of his wife, Esmerelda. He went into her room and much shouting and reprimanding could clearly be heard, even from the floors below.
His scolding seemed to do some good, at least for a while. Esmerelda joined the family for dinner, though her tiny portions were laughable. She also sat with them in the late evening, as they discussed business and family matters. But she insisted on being close to the fire, and constantly complained of feeling cold. When he went back to his regiment, Esmerelda returned to her old ways. But it was not long before she discovered she was with child again.
Henry had obviously done more than just shout at her.
During the first week in May, Aileen delivered a healthy boy child, with the ease of a sheep lambing in a field. At the request of her absent husband, the boy was named Spencer Abraham, and his bright red hair matched that of his young mother. Not long after that, Richard returned from his education, now a strapping young man. He seemed somewhat embarrased to find his mother expecting again, and that may have encouraged him to discuss a career in the military, asking to follow in his father’s footsteps. He didn’t bother to consult his disinterested mother, so spoke about his desires with Oscar and Agatha. She was now confined to her sick-bed. Frail, and close to the end. She advised Oscar to let the boy do as he wished, adding that if it didn’t suit him, he could easily come back and study the family business.
On the day that Richard left for his training as an officer, Agatha died in her sleep that night.
Young Aileen had to step up immediately, becoming the lady of the house despite her age. Esmerelda had confined herself because of her expected baby, and was rarely out of her room. With baby Spencer cared for by a nurse during the day, Aileen took charge, putting into practice everything she had been taught by Agatha.
Though she added a few ideas of her own too.
Dakin Hall benefited greatly from Aileen becoming the mistress. The staff were given increases in pay, and allowed better food too. They were also called by their names, rather than the use of such terms as ‘Girl’, or ‘You’. Aileen also insisted that they accompany the famly to church on Sundays, and local carters were hired to save them the long walk. Everyone who worked in or around the house had never been more content, and jobs at The Hall became the most sought after in the county.
Aileen’s no nonsense atitude changed the atmosphere in the family too. She allowed Esmerlda to continue to do nothing, and left her to it without complaint or bitterness. James continued to be cared for, and his every need taken care of. Oscar was suitably impressed, and told Abraham what a wonderful job his young wife was doing. And Abraham’s all too brief visit that year left Aileen expecting another addition to the family too. Then Oliver returned from his education, set to study under his father with a view to taking over the business one day. With some of the Dakin men still serving in the military, his once professed desire to follow them was not allowed.
The young man was overwhelmed by Aileen, though she failed to notice his growing obsession with her.
The new mistress was just as popular around the town. Respectful greetings followed her every appearance, and she was always addressed as Mistress Dakin. Her polite manner impressed tradespeople and shopkeepers alike, yet all could see she was no fool, despite her youth. The polite society of the county was less enamoured, and social invitations faied to appear for the daughter of a tavern-keeper. But this was as nothing to Aileen, who was relieved not to have to suffer the boring tea parties and stuffy dances.
In the quiet of her own room, she kept up the journal that she had discovered. Her careful script continuing to relate the day to day life of the family, and the world events surrounding them too. And she was sure to set time aside for little Spencer, delighting in late afternoon play with her son.
That winter was harsh, and continued to be so as the year turned.
One snowy night, Esmerlda went into labour. No doctor or midwife could get up to The Hall in time, so Aileen tried her best with the delivery, helped by two maids, and the cook. But the child was not breathing when it appeared, and no amount of rocking it before the fire or slapping the infant would work. When the town doctor arrived just before dawn, he pronounced the baby dead, and turned his attention to Esmerelda.
She had continued to bleed following the delivery of her stillborn daughter. Years of eating little and taking no exercise had left her weak too, and with no hope of a surgeon arriving from Colchester, Esmerelda died just before midday.
Despite her exhausting night, Aileen immediately wrote letters to Henry and Richard, informing them of the terrible news. Both were unlikely to get leave, and the travel conditions were such that they would be unable to get home in time anyway. Esmerelda was interred in the family plot in the town churchyard the following afternoon. Her baby was named Florence, and buried in the coffin with her.
Ignoring the sadness affecting the family, Aileen determined to not only keep the household running as normal, but also to ensure that the poor people around the town did not suffer due to the continuing winter. She spoke to Oscar and Oliver about deferring some payments due from tenant farmers, and organised the distribution of bread and vegetables to those suffering hardship. By the time the thaw began, and Abraham was able to return home, he was delighted to see his young wife so well regarded by all.
She also remained unaware of the hidden affections of Oliver, and his jealousy at her carrying a child. The young man became withdrawn and churlish around her, causing her to wonder what offence she might have inadvertantly shown him. For his part, he took out his frustrations on the local wildlife, becoming a keen hunter. He also began to associate with some of the town girls, much to the disapproval of his father. Oscar seriously considered sending him off to the army after all, but needed to know he had someone capable of passing on the business to.
By the time Aileen successfully delivered a second son, Oliver hardly spoke to anyone, and spent much of his free time carousing around the town.
The new baby was named George Abraham, and his bright red hair was just like his mother’s.
The autumn of the year 1805 brought sad news from the town. Admiral Nelson had been killed during a great sea battle fought in Spanish waters near Cape Trafalgar. Even delight at the resounding victory was overshadowed by the national mourning at the loss of such a beloved warrior. There was a special church service in his memory, and all attended, packing the interior, with some having to stand outside.
Now almost twenty-seven years old, Aileen had not managed to bear more children. After numerous miscarriages, it had been confirmed that she was unlikely to have more success. So she kept her young sons close, with tutors employed to teach the boys at Dakin Hall. They were growing fast, and George proved to be the livelier, athletic one, with Spencer studious, and slightly withdrawn. When Oscar urged her to send them away to boarding school, she flatly refused to discuss it. Knowing that he relied on her to be the lady of the house now, Oscar gave up.
The last few years had seen Oliver become a man of two halves. He learned the ways of business from his father during the day, but most nights he would ride into town, where he kept bad company with young drunks, and girls of loose morals. Oscar had been forced to pay off the families of no less than three girls claiming to be bearing the children of his careless son. Still determined to have his heir carry on the business, he contantly forgave the defiant Oliver, and continued to fund his reckless lifestyle.
But one cold December afternoon, everything changed.
Aileen still loved to take time to play with her sons once their studies finished in the afternoon. Sencer now considered himself to be too old for such frivolity, but George loved to play. And his favourite game was hide and seek. Aileen had to count loudly to one hundred, as her son ran around trying to find a good place to conceal himself. They agreed that if he was not discovered in around thirty minutes, he would reveal himself, and claim to have won. With such a large house and grounds, he usually did win.
That particular afternoon, George had no taste for concealment in the cold outdoors, so found himself a corner in one of the old stables that was rarely used since the construction of a smart new stable block two years previously. By good fortune, Aileen had spotted him from a first floor window, given away by his flame-red hair. She smiled to herself, happy to have the luxury of knowing his whereabouts. To make it look more convincing, she waited fifteen minutes according to the mantel clock, before wrapping a shawl around against the cold, and heading out to pretend to have finally found her son.
But someone else had found him first.
Oliver had already been drinking, despite the time of day. She could hear it in his voice. He was holding a letter-opener, one that resembled a small dagger. George was smiling at first, thinking it was all part of the game. But his smile faded at the look of concern on his mother’s face as she saw Oliver point the blade in the direction of George’s neck. With his eyes wild, and his voice slurring from the brandy, Oliver told her to go into the next stall, where he intended to have his way with her. If she made no fuss, George would be safe, and nobody would know.
He hadn’t reckoned on her being both brave and resourceful. She was also very fast. Grabbing some old heavy harness draped around a stall, she whirled it once around her head, and flung it at Oliver. It struck him full in the face, causing him to rock backwards, and drop the sharp letter-opener. Screaming at George to run for the house, Aileen rushed forward and picked up the harness, lashing it at Oliver’s face time and again, until her strength failed her. Breathing hard, she looked down at Oliver sprawled on the wooden floor. His face was cut badly, and bleeding, and there were bruises already visible on his neck. But he was still breathing.
Still enraged, she began to kick him in the body, as hard as her small feet in buttoned boots would allow. She was still kicking him when Oscar arrived to pull her away.
A doctor was called, and a story concocted that Oliver had fallen from a horse whilst drunk. Whether that story was believed or not was neither here nor there, as the doctor was paid handsomely. With bandages applied, and a diagnosis of three broken ribs, the unapologetic Oliver was sent to his room to recover. He was forbidden to emerge, even for Christmas dinner, and his meals were served in his room.
Such an offence against the mistress of Dakin Hall could never be forgiven, Oscar knew that. Not long after the turn of the year. Oliver was sent away in disgrace, ordered to start a new life in the Australian colony, with sufficient funds to last him for one year.
Not one member of the family watched him leave.
The early spring of 1815 brought worrying news along with the emerging daffodils. Bonaparte had escaped from his island prison, and had landed in France. Joined by his former followers and army commanders, he looked set to resume his previous plans to conquer Europe. The preparations were in hand to send a vast army to defeat him. Aided by the Prussians, Russians, and the Austrians, they would do their best to defeat the hated republican, and his much feared Grand Army.
For the Dakin family, this was dire news indeed. Henry and Abraham were serving with cavalry regiments, and despite their ages, would of course be expected to go to the continent to fight. Richard, as a captain of infantry, had received orders to go. Only George was not yet serving, and despite his pleas, he was not allowed to enlist. Abraham was now a major in the Scots Greys, and Henry a regimental colonel in the heavy cavalry. There was no time for family farewells, as orders were given for the massive movement of troops by ship to the continent. The Duke of Wellington was to take command of the British forces, and that cheered the spirits of all involved.
Now almost twenty years old, Spencer had wasted no time getting to grips with the management of the estates, and family business. He had become Oscar’s right hand man in all things, and that had pleased the head of the family no end. Aileen still ran the household with complete precision, and care for the staff, and her economies had greatly pleased Oscar, who had come to love her as a sister.
On the eve of the seventeenth of June that year, all three members of the Dakin family still serving the colours found themselves in a rain-soaked camp in Belgium. It was around one mile from the village of Waterloo, and Wellington had decided that this was the place where he would stop the French advance. He had chosen the ground well, with the French disadvantaged by both terrain, and mud. The battle was expected to start soon after first light, and nobody was left in any doubt that it might well decide the fate of Europe for years to come.
Henry was aware of Abraham being nearby with the Scots Greys. But neither of them knew that Richard was also there with his regiment. When the French artillery began firing in the early afternoon, their attack delayed by sodden ground, they had no alternative but to sit and wait on their horses, on the flank of the main army. The Prussians had not arrived, and even the lowliest infantryman knew full well that they were outnumbered.
Richard and his company had been assigned to the defence of the fortified farm, known as Hougoumont. When the French artillery began its bombardment of the lines, it was all he could do to hold his water in his fear. Not long after, elite French infantry appeared, and the fight for the farm was on. Despite his terror, Richard fought fuelled by adrenaline. When he broke his sword against that of a French officer, he grabbed a fallen musket and skewered the man with its bayonet, screaming like a wild man from the hills. Then he took up the Frenchman’s sword, and rallied his company like a man posessed. The fight for the farm continued long after the sun began to set, with Frenchmen scaling the walls, and being shot down in scores when they reached the courtyard.
Richard finally got to slake his thirst, drinking the acrid water from the canteen of a dead sergeant. He was covered in the blood of his enemies, and that from many wounds on his own arms and face. But the regiment held the position, though suffering considerable losses. When no more Frenchmen appeared, he collapsed exhausted onto the damp earth. He had never felt so tired in his life, and his breathing was laboured by the smoke from the burning roof, and the gunpowder hanging over the battlefied like a fog.
When the Scots Greys were ordered foward against the French artillery, the middle-aged Abraham took part in the most exhilarating moment of his life. With infantry clutching their stirrups, they advanced in a famous and unstoppable charge. But Bonarparte had seen their courage, and sent his Polish Lancers aganst them, from the rear. Abraham didn’t even see the slim lance that entered his back, as he was so excited by the thrill of the attack he was engaged in.
The lancer skilfully withdrew his lance, and looked for another target, as Abraham Dakin slipped slowly from his saddle onto the churned-up mud of that Belgian field, He was dead before his body hit the ground, killed in his one and only battle.
Richard and Henry had fared better. They lived to celebrate the victory, and the end of Napoleon.
Richard and Henry managed to arrange for Abraham’s body to be returned to England by ship. It cost a pretty penny, but they did not want him buried in a Belgian field. The funeral at the local church was a quiet and sombre affair, though even dressed in mourning black, Aileen attracted a lot of attention. Desspite her genuine love for her deceased husband, she shed no tears in publlic, and retained the dignity expected of the mistress of Dakin Hall.
Oscar now turned his attention to finding a suitable wife for Spencer. With George now being allowed to follow his late father into military service, and the unmarried Oliver exiled to the colonies, Oscar was keen to ensure the Dakin name lived on through Spencer. On his twenty-first birthday, he was married by arrangement to the daughter of the head of one of the banks in Colchester, Penelope Harding. They had only met formally and briefly on two occasions, before the match was agreed by Oscar and Mortimer Harding.
The serious Spencer hardly looked at his fair-haired bride throughout the ceremony, and for her part, the nineteen year old seemed bored by it all. Physically, they were an odd pair. Penelope was actually much taller than her new husband, and her fine features were nothing like the ruddy, countryman’s face of the man she had no option but to marry. For Oscar and Mortimer, combining the county’s most prosperous business with one of its wealthiest banks was a perfect marriage indeed.
After standing as best man for his brother, an excited George left the next day to begin a career in the army.
Although Penelope’s arrival in the house was anticipated with some trepidation, she was kindness itself when the couple returned from a short honeymoon in Bath. Although she had lived well in her father’s fine town house in Colchester, the grandeur and opulence of Dakin hall was beyond her expectations as a bride, and the wealth of the family would provide her with security, as well as the latest fashions in dresses and hats. Ten days in the company of Spencer had also shown her that he could easily be manipulated, and was unlikely to bother her much above the obvious need to father some children.
Penelope was content, and showed respect to all around her, including Aileen.
Spencer took on much more of the business affairs following his wedding, but he still made time to father two children, in quick succession. Less than one year after the marriage, Arthur was born. He was given the middle name of Mortimer, as a nod to his wealthy grandfather. The following year, Millicent Alice was born, her red hair not unlike that of her grandmother’s. Penelope made little of both confinements, and both children came into the world with no fuss or bother for them or their mother. Aileen was happy to see her daughter in law was a kind and good mother, all of which boded well for her future as the mistress of the house one day.
But more sadness befell the family during that hot summer just after little Millicent was born. James was found dead in his rooms by his manservant. He had hung himself using the strong cords attached to the curtains, his mind presumably no longer able to cope with whatever distress had plagued him for so long. Oscar paid the doctor handomely to issue a death certificate of natural causes, so that James could receive a Christian burial, and nobody would talk of him as a suicide. There was not a single member of the family who did not consider it to be a blessed relief, both for James, and for all of them too.
Oliver Dakin had not made it to Australia. He met some men on board ship who were heading for the Cape Colony, at the tip of southern Africa. They spoke of cheap land, the possiblity of farms as big as English counties, and a temperate climate that would serve their endeavours well. Their eyes flashed greedily when they related tales of rich gold mines, and diamonds too. He threw in with them, and left the ship when it stopped in port to replenish supplies. The territory had been Dutch controlled, but the British had captured it during the wars with France. There was room enough for all in such a vast landscape. Oliver left his new companions soon after, allowing them to wallow in their dreams of gold and jewels.
He had his eyes on a more tangible prize. Cattle.
With land easy to acquire, and native labour cheap and plentiful, he soon established a large cattle farm. The growing colony needed beef, and he resolved to become the major supplier of that commodity. He had the drive to do it, and the necessary mean streak to make his business succeed. Putting his wild youth behind him, he decided that he would show his father just what he was made of.
After serving as the Regent for many years, Prince George became king upon the death of his father, early in the year 1820. Never a popular prince, he was equally unpopular as George IV, with his love of spending money and amusing himself seeming to take precedence over the serious matter of ruling his subjects fairly.
That same year, Penelope gave birth to her third child, a chubby boy they named Roderick Spencer. Oscar was all but in retirement now, spending much of his time alone in his study, though always available to offer advice and support to Spencer as he managed the family businesses. With Penelope’s help, Aileen kept the house running smoothly, and they now employed more servants than ever before, to ensure that everything was always just so.
Richard had been promoted after his brave fight at Waterloo, and was now one of the youngest Colonels in the Army. He decided to marry at long last, and was bethrothed to the daughter of a local landowner in Yorkshire, the rather plain Miss Cicely Knowles. Though twenty years his junior, anyone out of earshot would have probably added ten or more years to her, based on her rather old-fashioned appearance. The wedding was a rather hurried and small affair, unattended by any of the Dakin family. That gave rise to rumours of course, but they turned out to be unfounded.
In keeping with family tradition, Cicely was sent to live at Dakin Hall. Richard’s regiment remained in Yorkshire, so he would only get home to see his wife when time away from the army was possible. Coinciding with the arrival of the new bride, Henry also turned up, supposedly to greet his new daughter-in-law. But it soon materialised that he had another reason. His health was not good, and he had taken the advice of his doctors to resign his commission, and leave the military. Plagued with gout, and with his florid features betraying a lifelong romance with strong drink, he announced he had now retired to live at The Hall.
Although pleased to see his cousin, Oscar had not counted on him living out his years back home, and confided in Spencer that he wanted no interference from Henry in the running of the business, or the estate. He need not have worried, as Henry had no intention of exerting either mind or body, preferring to relax in his room between three large meals in the dining room, as well as high tea taken on the terrace in good weather. When the new Butler, Cork, advised Oscar that he was running low on stocks of Port Wine and Sherry, it was obvious to all that Henry was not about to curb his drinking any time soon.
As for Cicely, she made herself very useful. With a natural talent for embroidery and an eye for colour, she set about helping Aileen and Penelope with the extensive interior decorating that was in progress. Every room in the house was to be painted, and many new furnishings had been ordered to reflect the new fashions of the period. During this upheaval, Henry decided to move into the East Wing, taking the rooms once occupied by James.
After more than twelve years spent expanding his cattle empire, Oliver was living very comfortably indeed. He not only employed many Bantu tribesmen, but also had some Dutchmen as managers and foremen. There were few large employers who did not buy beef from him for their workers, and most butchers in the growing small towns had little alternative but to use him as a supplier too. The money that Oscar had given him had increased one hundred fold, and he lived in a comfortable house looked after by four servants. He was aware that Zulu tribesmen occasionally rustled some of his stock from the borders of his range, but knew enough about their fierce nature to leave them in peace.
Many times, he had thought about writing to his father, perhaps to boast of his good life in sunny climes. But even his obvious riches were nothing compared to the fortune held by the Dakin family in England. He would think about expansion the following year, and bide his time regarding his family.
Cicely was delighted when Richard was able to get home for one week in the Autumn. She had not seen him for some months following their wedding, and all agreed that she did indeed seem to be besotted by her much older husband. They spent a lot of time together during that week, and the house maids giggled to each other that they had also shared the same room every night.
So the announcement at Christmas that Cicely was expecting a child came as no surprise to anyone.
Richard was delighted when Cicely delivered him a fine son, and named the boy Edward Albert. He made the long trip from his barracks to visit his wife and new baby, remarking how nice it was to see Dakin Hall so full of life again, with Spencer’s three children running around, Henry appearing at the dinner table, and the ladies of the house all getting on so well. There was news of George too, with his regiment being posted to service in India. The situation there was mercifully quiet at the time, and all agreed that George would benefit from the travel and experience of that exotic land.
Spencer was becoming very interested in the application of steam power. Reports suggested it was more efficient that using horses, and could possibly enable work to be done on the company-owned farms in half the time. Although it was still untried, he decided to invest heavily in the plans of some companies to produce steam-powered equipment of all kinds. He mentioned this to Oscar, who showed little interest, happy to let him do as he wished. To balance his investment, Spencer sold off the shoe shops and hat making concerns in London. With most of the family interests now based in the county, there was little need to visit the capital.
With the house decorations nearing completion, it was decided to arrange a grand party for the local gentry. The affair would have a winter theme, and be held early in December. As Aileen was always concerned for the servants to be involved in some way, they would be allowed to have a similar party, to be held in the main stable block the following day. Extra staff would be hired to serve them, and entertainers employed to make music for dancing.
Both functions went off without a hitch, leaving the wealthier townsfolk and local landowners talking for weeks about the generosity of the Dakin family, and the magnificence of the Hall. Though Henry was taken much the worse for drink, and had to be carried to his bed by three footmen well before midnight.
Ocscar was well-pleased with the actions of Aileen and Spencer in arranging the party, which helped to cement all the good business contacts he had spent his life nuturing. The new year arrived, heralding yet more profits, and a continuing peaceful life for everyone living at Dakin Hall.
An unusually warm Spring found Henry in some difficulties. His legs had swollen badly, and he was short of breath after the least exertion. Doctors were consulted from as far away as London, but all came to the same conclusion. Henry’s age was against him, and his lifestyle would finish him very soon, unless he was prepared to make some radical changes involving drinking, eating, and exercising. Now over seventy himself, Oscar was also slowing down considerably, and had little time for Henry’s antics. He announced that Henry must either take the advice of the doctors, or be damned.
Around the same time, Aileen showed Cicely her secret trunk containing the journals recording the history of the family, including her own additions. She asked her to pledge to continue them, should anything happen to her. Cicely readily agreed, finding the records most fascinating. She spent much of that day reading them, acquainting herself with the complexities of the various members of the Dakin family over the decades.
During her detailed perusal, she came across a folded envelope. containing one piece of paper. The envelope was caught between two other sheets, apparently being used as a bookmark. It was fragile, and brown at the edges. Opening it carefully, she read the haphazard writing, which appeared to be in the hand of someone who had the most basic education. To her great surprise, it was a love letter, the envelope addressed to Clara Dakin.
Despite the clumsy prose, and abysmal spelling, it told of a great love for Clara, and the children they had created together. It spoke of regret that they could never be together, due to the acute differences in their social standing. As Cicely got to the end of the page, it ended with a fond farewell, and a wish for happiness and good fortune. The name at the bottom was written in simple capitals, and it was not one she had ever heard mentioned at Dakin Hall.
Cicely took the page and placed it back into the envelope. Then she folded it again, and took it to her room. Finding a crack between two floorboards, she jammed the letter in until no trace of it could be seen from above. Though reluctant to destroy it, she was in no doubt what its contents proved beyond doubt.
Not one of the Dakin children had ever descended from Isiah.
They had all originated from a working man of some kind, called Simeon Rudd. Although he would now be long dead, the news of this proof could never be allowed to surface.
It would ruin the reputation of the family irreparably.
Following her discovery in the family journals, Cicely suggested to Aileen that they should store the trunk elsewhere, in case it was found and the contents read by the servants. Disguised with brown paper and concealed in a larger travel trunk, it was arranged for it to be stored in the dry loft of the coach-house, where hardly any staff ever ventured. Before the footmen arrived to carry it away, Cicely made a discreet entry in the early journal of Clara, alluding to the love letter from Simeon Rudd, and where it was hidden in the floorboards. She could not shake the feeling that one day, it might be important.
By the autumn, Henry was becoming increasingly obstreperous. His behaviour was such that his meals were now served in his room, and his alcohol intake was severely rationed. But he colluded with Cork by paying him well to supply brandy and port wine in abundance, and in secret. When he ran out of available coin, he gave the butler a fine pocket watch, and on another occasion the sword he had carried at Waterloo. The servants charged with caring for Henry had all but given up on trying to undress him and put him to bed. Most nights they simply left him sleeping in his armchair by the fire, his bandaged legs propped up on an upholstered foot stool.
On one such night, with the rest of the household deeply asleep, and everywhere quiet, Henry awoke with a start, the pain from the gout in his legs causing him to flail out with both feet. His left leg struck the side table next to hm, on which a bottle of brandy was sat, three-quarters full. The bottle fell onto the hearth and smashed, with some of the contents splashing onto the glowing embers, and the rest running under Henry’s armchair.
The spirit ignited with a hiss and flash of flame, quickly setting the dry and dusty upholstery on fire too. As the still-dazed Henry struggled to pull himself from the chair, his ointment-soaked bandages also caught fire, and he fell onto his knees. Years of repeated varnishing had made the boards of the room ripe for ignition, and the thin woven rug served as tinder. Very soon, Henry was kneeling surrounded by flames, and fire that was burning through his bandages and clothes onto his legs and body. He tried shouting for help, but the smoke went into his mouth so quickly, all he could manage was a fit of coughing.
With Henry’s room, and Henry, consumed by fire, it was still some time before his personal servant in the room above was woken up by the smoke coming under the door of his room. He jumped from his bed, bewildered in the dark, and when he opened the door, he recoiled from the thick smoke in the stairwell, and the flames flickering below. With no escape in that direction, he went back into his room and jumped from the window onto the terrace below, breaking both legs in the fall. As he looked back at the East Wing behind him, it was clear that the flames had already spread into the roof space, and were crossing into the main house.
The screams of the maids in their rooms above woke Aileen from a heavy slumber. She could smell the smoke before her eyes opened, and began shouting before she got out of bed. Out in the hallway, she saw Spencer in his nightgown, heading for the rooms that the children slept in. Aileen turned to run to Cicely’s room and the nursery beyond, where baby Edward slept. But the ceiling above collapsed, filling the corridor with smoke and dust. As she flailed around in the darkness, she could hear the ominous crackle of the flames consuming rafters and floorboards above.
The distinctive voice of Penelope could be heard screaming for help from her room, then suddenly a pair of arms raised Aileen from her crouching position, and swept her back to the main staircase. She turned to see Oscar, his sparse hair wild, and his face black with soot. He nodded at the staircase, shouting for her to run. In the main entrance hall, Cork was on his knees, choking on the smoke he had inhaled upstairs. Outside in the dark, Aileen saw the flames rising above the roof, and the red glow beginning to illuminate the sky. She had to run from the front of the house, as roof tiles and pieces of heavy guttering were crashing to the ground like missiles.
Some grooms and the coachman had come running from the stable block, carrying heavy pails of water. But when they tried to enter the house to douse any flames, they were driven back by the choking smoke.The coachman ran back to Aileen, taking off his heavy leather jerkin to cover her as she knelt in horror at the sight before her.
Then the roof of the East Wing collapsed into the building, with a mighty roar.
Aileen watched as the flames appeared through the top windows, where the servant’s quarters were located. The screams of the maids had stopped now, and she knew that was not good. The coachman and grooms had put down their pails, knowing that those few buckets of water would have little effect on the conflagration before their eyes. One of the stable-lads had already left by horse to summon help from the town, but by the time anyone could make the journey north to Dakin Hall, it would be too late.
Then someone appeared through the smoke billowing out of the still open front doors. Oscar stumbled toward her, clutching something that looked like a bundle of rags. He thrust it into her arms, and by the light from the flames, she could tell it was baby Edward. She looked up at Oscar, his face completely black, and his hair singed. She asked if he had seen Spencer, but he shook his head and turned to go back inside. The coachman tried to restrain him, but when Oscar pushed away the hand on his shoulder, the man followed him back into the smoke-filled entrance.
A few minutes later, both of them emerged carrying a body with obvious difficulty. As they dropped it onto the grass, Oscar collapsed next to it, fighting for breath. It was Spencer, his hands and face terribly burned, and the nightshirt ripped and blackened. The coachman pressed an ear to his face, and confirmed that he was still breathing, then he sat Oscar up, and tried to give him sips of water from a leather cup. Seconds later, the huge chimney stack to the west of the building collapsed, showering the ground below with rubble.
By the time people began to arrive from the town in carts and on horseback, baby Edward was at least crying, as Aileen carefully washed his small smoke-blackened face with cold water. The Mayor had taken charge, and advised them to retire to a safer distance, as he was sure that the house could not be saved now. Young Doctor England told her that Spencer was still alive, but his prognosis was not good. As for Oscar, he was no longer breathing, and the doctor gave his condolences before instructing the grooms to remove his body to the stables for the time being.
Some of the townsfolk found Henry’s servant behind the house, and the doctor was asked to attend to his broken legs. They also found the bodies of two housemaids, killed by the fall after jumping from the window of their attic room. By first light, the main roof had collapsed, and the dust covered eveyone at the scene. Nobody else left the house alive, and Aileen felt her body convulse as the enormity finally hit her. Penelope and Cicely, both dead. All the children dead, other than Edward. Oscar and Henry dead, and Spencer grimly hanging on to what might be the last moments of his life.
Then there was the butler, the cook, the scullery girl, and all the housemaids. At least two footmen who lived inside, and if he did not survive two broken legs, Henry’s servant too. If there had ever been a blacker day for the Dakin family, she didn’t know of it. The Mayor arranged for some workmen to remain to wait until the fire burnt out, then to begin to clear the debris, saving what they could. The coachman and grooms would see to the horses, and secure any property recovered later that day. Meanwhile, the mayor offered his hospitality to Aileen, adding that he would arrange for a nurse to care for baby Edward.
Accompanying the Mayor back to his town house in his coach, she was greeted cordially by his wife, who arranged a bath for her, and a change of clothes. The kindly old nurse was already there, and she took baby Edward away to one of the rooms to see to him. After cleaning herself, Aileen was shown to a comfortable bed and told to rest. But she was unable to sleep.
She knew that she would have to write to Richard, and give him the awful news. Then to George in India, with the news that almost all of the family he knew had perished on that same terrible night. She sat up in the bed, overwhelmed with the realisation that everything concerning the Dakin family would now rest on her shoulders. She would have to contact family lawyers and bankers, begin the painful process of arranging burials, all the time having to concern herself with the day to day business that had consumed Spencer’s every waking moment. Then there were the relatives of the poor dead servants, Cicely’s father to inform, and the daily routine of running the rest of the estate.
So much to do. So many thoughts occupying her mind.
Then just as she thought it could not get any worse, Doctor England arrived at the Mayor’s house with the news that Spencer had died.
It was a cold Spring in London that year, and Aileen was glad of the fire she was sitting in front of as she opened her journal. Adding the date, she paused for thought. 1838 was fifteen years after the fire that had changed all their lives, and she would soon be sixty years old.
After spending a few days accepting the Mayor’s hospitality, Aileen insisted that she and baby Edward moved on. Following a brief discussion with the owner of The White Hart Inn, the most respected hostelry in town, she took all of the seven rooms for an unspecified time. He was also pleased to rent her the private dining room for her personal use during the same period, where she would take her meals with Edward and the nurse, as well as conducting business there during the day. The old nurse had been more than happy to accept the offer of full time employment, at least until Aileen decided on the future.
The funerals had to be staggered over the course of one week. Richard returned for the burials of his wife and children, his face gaunt and hollow. Except for two of the maids, Henry’s servant, and Oscar, Doctor England estimated the identity by the size of each charred corpse. He had been unable to save the man with two broken legs, due to excessive bleeding inside his thighs. Aileen bore the cost of every funeral from family funds, as well as sending a full year’s wages to the families of all the servants who had perished. Though the family lawyer had stated that Richard was now the rightful male heir to the family lands and fortune, he begged Aileen to continue to manage things while he returned to his life in the army. As for George, it would be some time before they received any reply.
Left to make decisions in the absence fo the Dakin men, she surprised everyone with her radical plans.
What was left of the house was demolished. The coachman was kept on, and the stables maintained until relocation was decided. The riverside house plot, and all its surrounding grounds were to be turned into a large sheep farm, run and managed by staff. Aileen employed a Mister Mackenzie, an experienced factor and estate manager. He would control all the family’s farming interests in two counties, and oversee the staff and tenants with help from two clerks. The other businesses would be sold. The leather works and seed and grain businesses were eagerly snapped up at fair prices, leaving Aileen with only the farming ventures to worry about, and managing the income from investments with the help of her bankers and lawyers.
After living at The White Hart for almost a year, she made the decision to move to London with Edward. The capital was booming, and despite her easy life at Dakin Hall, Aileen missed the bustle of a city. Her first sixteen years in Edinburgh had never left her mind or heart. But she was wise enough not to choose to live in the centre of the city, with its filth and crime. She chose a stylish house on the northern outskirts, in an area known as Hampstead Village. Despite the countryside appearance, it was but a short coach ride into the places she would need to frequent.
Both the nurse and the coachman declined to go with her. They were given three month’s pay, and good references. She employed a widower named Kennedy as her new coachman, a quiet and reliable looking man with an excellent work record. With Edward now at his toddling stage, a young woman named Nancy Priest was given the job of his nurse. Arrangements were made for any mail received for Dakin Hall to be sent on to their new home. The new house was big enough to accomodate many more than just her and a child, and there was adequate stabling for the four horses required too.
As they left the town behind, heading west to London, Aileen didn’t look back.
In Hampstead, life was more than bearable. Lacking the vast grounds that had surrounded the former grand house, there was a manageable garden at the rear, large enough to need the services of a gardner who lived out. As well as Nancy and Kennedy, two housemaids were employed, also a cook and a girl to help her. Then Aileen engaged a butler, a painfully thin man named Wilson who would be in charge of the day to day running of the house. Even with six staff in residence, there were still seven other bedrooms, with Kennedy comfortably set up in the large room over the coach-house.
Following meetings with bankers and lawyers in the city, Aileen was impressed to discover that Spencer’s interests in the steam companies had been prescient. They had diversified and evolved into the increasingly popular steam railways, and his investment was now worth twenty times what he had put in. Even without the farm crops and land rents, the Dakin fortune was as huge as ever.
George had finally replied. He sent his condolences, and added his intention to remain in the army in India. With Richard now colonel of his regiment in Yorkshire, and showing no interest in any business affairs, Aileen had sent Edward off to a good school, remaining at the Hampstead house alone until he returned.
As she closed her journal for the day, she rang the bell for one of the maids to come and add coal to the fire.
It seemed to her to be unseasonably cold.
The same summer that young Queen Victoria was crowned, Edward returned from his studies. He had excelled in Latin and sciences, and informed Aileen that he intended to become a doctor. A letter had been sent to Saint Bartholemew’s Hospital, along with a glowing recommendation from the Dean of his college. But he was concerned to see Aileen suffering from the cold in what was a warm enough summer, and to find her in front of a roaring fire, covered in a blanket. He chided Nancy for not summoning a doctor, waving away her excuses that Aileen would not allow it.
Edward had no memory of life at Dakin Hall, nor of any of the family save his father. He had only seen him on a few occasions, and their meetings had been formal, stilted, and awkward. Aileen was the closest he had ever known to a mother, and he called her ‘Dear Aunt’. He sent for a young doctor he had heard good things about. The man exuded professionalism and calm, and after the most cursory of examinations, he noticed the smallest of swellings at the base of her neck. His diagnosis was that the glands in her neck were not working properly, hence the fact that she always felt cold. He advised that she might have increased appetite, but the metabolic changes were such that she was unlikely to put on any weight. There was no treatment available, but he declared there was no reason why she should not live to old age.
Nancy Priest had not been called upon to perform any duties since Edward had gone away to school. But Aileen had kept her on, partly as a companion, but mainly because Nancy had nowhere else to go. Edward now treated her much like an older sister, referrring to her as ‘Dearest Nancy’. Over dinner on his second night at home, he told Aileen that he had no intention of managing the family business. Farming and Railways would never be of any interest to him, and she would do well to appoint people to run them for her. This would cost money of course, but then he could continue to train as a surgeon, and Aileen would have little to do except sign papers occasionally, and manage the day to day finances required to run the house. This was readily agreed, and a letter was sent to Richard in Yorkshire seeking his agreement.
That same week, on a different continent, far to the south, Oliver Dakin was riding home from a particularly acrimonious altercation with one of his tenant farmers. Now over sixty, and very portly, he had never married. He preferred to get his pleasures from the native girls in nearby villages, their favours purchased for as little as a couple of scrawny goats. He had no desire for children, and no need of a nagging wife. Besides, he still liked to ride around his vast cattle empire, and keep a close eye on his managers and overseers. He now had a fine black stallion as his mount, and had named it Hercules.
The argument had delayed him, and as he rode home, he could see the sun setting rapidly. Although he knew the land well, he had no desire to try to traverse the rough ground in the dark. Kicking the stirrups into the side of Hercules, he urged the horse into a gallop, and held onto his hat with one hand as the speed increased. Something spooked the horse though, and it stopped suddenly, tipping the surprised Oliver forward over its neck. As he lay dazed on the hard ground, the animal carried on galloping, ignoring Oliver’s shouts and whistles. Dusting himself down, Oliver stood up to discover he had turned an ankle. It was painful, but he knew it could have been much worse. He decided to rest for the night in the long grass, as it would be madness to attempt the long walk in the dark.
The sun woke him early, and he remembered that his water bottle and rifle had been slung on his saddle. He was out in the bush with no protection, and nothing to drink. His first thought was to wait, to see if Hercules returned. But it was winter season there, and he feared being caught in heavy rain. So he began to walk as best he could, trying not to work out how long it would take to walk what might take a couple of hours to ride.
He heard the lion before he saw it. A low burbling sound, ominous in the empty plains. Turning to his right, he spotted the huge male. Its dark mane was catching the breeze, and it stood stock still, gazing at him almost absent-mindedly from some distance. Oliver knew what they said to do. Stand firm, wave your arms, shout defiantly. But being told that, and having the courage to do it, are two different things once faced with the reality. As it was, there was no time to decide. He had not seen the lionesses in the long grass behind him, and the first one took him in the buttocks, dragging him flat to the ground. The second closed her jaws around his throat, crushing his windpipe.
By the time the third one began ripping the flesh from his thigh, it was a mercy that he was already dead.
Edward did exceptionally well in his first year studying at the hospital. But at the same time, Aileen noticed some tightness in her clothing, and obvious weight gain. It seemed the young doctor that had attended her didn’t know so much about his profession after all. Even reducing the amount she ate made little difference, so with her usual attitude, she accepted becoming fat late in life, and continued to enjoy her food.
One Sunday afternoon, Edward returned to the house accompanied by one of his colleagues, Nathaniel Hardwicke. Nathaniel also brought along his sister, and Edward announced they would be taking tea. Aileen made the effort to leave her heavy shawls behind for once, and made herself presentable to greet the guests. Verity Hardwick was older than Edward, by perhaps five years or more. An intelligent and strkingly attractive young woman, Aileen could tell immediately that Edward was besotted with her. And she appeared to return his admiration at the same level.
Aileen learned that the pair were orphans, living with an elderly bachelor uncle in Clerkenwell. After the smiles and constant glances, it came as no surprise when Edward suddenly blurted out that they would like to get married, and on his twentieth birthday the following year. Aileen replied that she would be delighted, but that Edward should by rights tell his father, and send him a letter at the earliest opportunity.
The Dakin family didn’t hear about what had happened to Oliver at the time. Nobody at the cattle farm had any idea about possible relatives in England, so when his remains were brought in, he was buried in a nondescript grave at the cemetery in the nearest town, and his affairs left in the hands of various lawyers who slowly stole all of his money and lands by fraudulent means. It was a long time later, when a disgruntled overseer wrote to bankers in London complaining about money owed, that Aileen dicovered the fate of her relative. She decided to say nothing, and placed the letter in the trunk containing the journals.
Verity arrived at the Hampstead house like a fresh breeze on a humid day. She quickly took charge of many mundane affairs, and started to oversee the running of the house, leaving Aileen to rest. The wedding had been a very quiet affair, and Richard had sent his apologies, claiming army business would keep him in Yorkshire. Edward went straight back to his studies at the hospital, leaving his new wife with Nancy and Aileen for company. That autumn, Verity announced she was expecting a baby, and Aileen was greatly cheered by how vibrant the house felt at long last. Into the fifth month of the pregnancy, Aileen showed Verity the trunk and the journals, making her pledge to keep them safe, and to continue them when she could no longer do so. The young woman replied that she would be delighted to do that, and considered it an honour to be asked.
With the family now set to grow and continue, Nancy approached Aileen with some concerns about her future. She had saved carefully from her salary, but when Aileen was gone, she would have nowhere to call home, and did not want to depend on the prospect of Verity and Edward retaining her. Aileen did not hesitate to help. She gave the woman suficient funds to purchase a small cottage in Essex for her eventual retirement, and calmed her fears by telling her she would be kept on to act as the nurse for the expected arrival.
The new baby was delivered at home without incident, and a delighted Edward rushed home from the hospital in time to be present at the birth. Aileen found this most unusual, and put his behaviour down to his medical leanings, and his youth. He named the healthy boy John Percival, and told all present that he would affectionally be known as Jack. Verity made a quick recovery, and it was soon apparent that she was a devoted and loving mother. Seeing no real place for herself any longer, Nancy asked Aileen for permission to return to Essex. And after a farewell dinner party, there were tearful goodbyes when she left in the family coach, with Kennedy tasked to take her to her new cottage.
The first year of John’s life saw a happy family at the Hampstead house. And news from the lawyers informed Aileen that the income from the railway companies was nothing short of astronomical. Even experienced bankers and investors could not recall such a boom in their lifetimes.
That made Aileen very content. The Dakin family future was secure.
In all the years that had passed since the birth of baby John, there had been no more children. Aileen suspected that was because Edward was spending too much time at the hospital, and not enough sleeping next to Verity. But it was never mentioned, so she didn’t ask about it. As she approached her eightieth birthday, she reflected on the events of the past twenty years, noting them in her journal in the spidery hand that had developed in her dotage.
Richard had died ten years earlier, still serving as a colonel in Yorkshire. He was taking the salute at morning parade, when he just keeled over on the parade ground. Edward hadn’t mourned a father he barely knew, but a funeral was arranged for interrment in the family plot in Essex, and he was buried in the presence of his remaining family, given full military honours for his long service.
Little John grew up preferring to be known by his familial name of Jack, and showed an interest in his father’s profession at an early age. He started to collect various specimens, which he stored in the summerhouse at the bottom of the garden. Delighting in telling Aileen, who he called grandmother, about the various dead birds, cats, and assorted wildlife that he dissected, and kept in jars of alcohol. She pretended interest, but it secretly gave her an uneasy feeling. The boy was growing up with no friends, and the day school he attended in London seemed to give him little outlet for his biological obsessions.
That same year, in June, news arrived from India of a terrible rebellion. Indian troops serving in the British Army there had rebelled against the British who ruled the country. The newspapers were full of lurid stories of betrayal and murder, and the white soldiers were under siege in many of the towns and cities. This worried Aileen, for George was still serving there, and he was close to sixty years old. Though they rarely heard from him, they knew he was a major in an infantry regiment, and based in a place called Lucknow.
It took until early the next year for the news to reach them that George had been killed there. His place of burial was unknown, and although Edward did not remember him, and Verity knew little of him, Aileen cried for the relative she also hardly knew. More than ever, she was aware that Edward and Jack were now all that remained of the Dakin family. Despite their wealth, the Dakins had been unable to escape the natural problems of life, and the effects of world events.
Jack’s marriage before Christmas was a hurried affair, and unexpected. Aileen lived long enough to meet his bride, the painfully thin and aloof Jemima Loe.
It was one of the two maids who found Aileen. Dead in her sleep, at the age of eighty, not far off her eighty-first birthday. Edward mourned her as if she had been his mother, and fulfilled her written instructions that she wished to be buried in Edinburgh. She had purchased a plot some years earlier, and mentioned her wishes to both Verity and Edward. So great was the esteem in which she was held, that the whole family took time to make the long and tiring trip to Scotland, accompanying her body.
For Verity, the loss of Aileen was significant. With George always at the hospital, and her son Jack following his father into medical studies, choosing The London Hospital in Whitechapel, she spent so much time alone, that she wondered what to do with herself. She had taken to gardening, and on the advice of the gardener, had ordered the building of two greenhouses in which to cultivate exotic species of plants. As the year turned, she sheltered inside from the cold, and thought about how she seemed to exist almost alone, save for the servants. Jack’s wife Jemima rarely appeared outside of her room, not even to take meals with the family.
When someone arrived from Saint Bartholemew’s, asking to see her, she was perplexed. She told the butler to tell him that her husband was not at home. He returned to say that it was her the man wanted to speak to, not Edward. So she reluctantly went down to the Morning Room. The man’s eyes were downcast, and he gripped his hat and shuffled his feet as he spoke. Edward Dakin had complained of a severe headache during surgery that morning, and had withdrawn from a delicate operation, leaving the rest to one of his juniors. He was found dead in his consulting room an hour later, and it was believed to have been a great brain seizure that had taken his life.
Verity thanked the man, and arranged for word to be sent to The London Hospital, to inform Jack of the news, and ask him to return home. She didn’t bother to disturb Jemima, as she had never liked the young woman anyway.
Retiring to her room that afternoon, Verity cried herself to sleep, wondering where her son was.
Life in Hampstead slowly became unbearable for Verity after Edward’s death. Immediately after the funeral, Jack took charge of the business interests as the sole heir, and arranged for the sale of all the farms and land in Essex. He used the fortune from those sales to reinvest heavily in railways, and although this proved to be a wise decision given the huge expansion of this fast-growing transport system, Verity was concerned that the Dakin family no longer owned any land, and every penny they had was tied up in speculative investments.
Jemima no longer stayed in her room, assuming the running of the house without so much as a word to her mother-in-law, and fully supported by Jack, who dismissed his mother’s worries and concerns angrily. He seemed to have no affection in his heart for either woman, wanting to be left alone to work at the hospital, and to continue his experiments in the laboratory he had built in the cellar. The staff were dismissed with scant notice, and Jack sold the coach and four horses, buying a smaller carriage pulled by one trotting horse. He also engaged a new coachman, a thuggish individual named Stubbins, who wore a foul-smelling oilskin coat in all weathers, and constantly picked at his fingernails with a pocket knife.
With no servants, Verity was forced to eat the tasteless food served up by Jemima, as they stared across the dining room table at each other in silence. When the younger woman did speak, her voice was harsh, and her vocabulary coarse. Jemima lacked culture and breeding, that was plain to see. The house also became filthy, leaving Verity to try her best to do some of the cleaning. But it was hard for a refined woman who had only ever known life with servants, and Jemima never helped with anything. After two years of this, and Jack ignoring her pleas to engage more servants, Verity made a decision.
Calling them both into her room one night, she showed them the trunk containing the journals and family letters and papers. Stressing the importance of keeping the detailed family history going, she asked Jemima to continue to record events in the latest journal. Then she told them that she would be leaving the following Satrday, to live with her widowed aunt in Northamptonshire. A coach would be sent for her and her belongings, as she did not want Stubbins to take her. If she had hoped this news might shake the pair into apology and a promise of changing their habits, she was sadly wrong.
When she left that day, Jack was occupied in the cellar, and Jemima did not appear from her room. Verity was sad to leave the house that had such good memories, but breathed a sigh of relief as the coach headed north across the heath. Three years later, on the death of her aunt, she married her second cousin, Algernon Farr. She didn’t bother to inform Jack.
Jack had never once mentioned how he had met Jemima. If questioned, he would say they had met by chance in the city, and struck up an acquaintance. He also never mentioned that they could not have children because his wife’s reproductive organs had been ruined by mistreatment and disease. And he definitely never revealed that he had met her in a filthy brothel above a pie shop in Spitalfields market, where he had gone to finally satisfy his lust, and had then changed his mind. Jemima had told him her story. Sold into prostitution at the age of just ten by a drunken mother, she had been sold and sold again by a succession of whores who had kept her a virtual prisoner in dank rooms to satisfy the darkest desires of wealthy men.
She had never forgotten the names of any of those women, but had been overwhelmed by the kindness of the man who had declined to have sex with her, placed her in a nice hotel in Bloomsbury away from the seedy streets of Whitechapel, then married her to secure her future. She didn’t love him, as she could never feel affection for a man, but she was devoted to him for his good deed. And she knew he didn’t love her. She was an experiment for him, to see if he could take a ragged whore, and make her into a respectable lady. Now with the departure of his mother, Jack arranged for tutors to attend Jemima, to teach her to read and write. He finally employed servants to clean the house, and see to the meals, and he made enough money available to his wife to dress well, and have all she needed.
By the time John Dakin had become a respected senior surgeon, and his neat and speedy surgery techniques the talk of the profession, he was ready to get revenge for Jemima.
With the names in a small notebook in his coat, and a simple medical bag between his knees, Jack told Stubbins to drive him to Whitechapel. As they entered the dark cramped streets of that east London district, he checked the names again. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes. They should be easy enough to find.
All of London was aghast at the series of murders that shocked the capital. Lurid descriptions filled the nespapers, and women were afraid to go out unaccompanied at night that September. When her husband returned home at dawn on those same nights, and went straight to the cellar, Jemima’s suspicions were raised. Then when she saw the names of the victims, she knew for sure that it was her Jack who was indeed the notorious ‘ripper’. But she wasn’t about to betray him. If anything, she admired him. For all of those years, he had never forgotten her story. Now he was dispensing his own form of justice for her past abuse.
Then October brought a new victim. A younger woman named Mary Kelly. Jemima had never met her, and she was too young to have been involved so long ago. When Jack sat at breakfast with his eyes in a strange demonic stare, she realised that it had been him. He had developed a taste for killing whores, and would continue. Jemima knew that would lead to his inevitable capture, shame on the Dakin name, and perhaps the loss of their fortune. As he slept that night, she crept into his room. Taking his razor from next to his shaving bowl on the washstand, she quickly drew it across his throat, making a deep cut. He jumped up with a strangled cry, but was dead before he could get across the room to where she stood.
Placing the razor in his right hand, she washed her hands carefully, and changed her nightdress. Then she summoned Stubbins and told him to go and fetch the police.
Her husband had committed suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed.
Colin Farr had wanted to get away from Kettering for most of hs life. He yearned for the bright lights of London. Trouble was, by the time the swinging sixties started, he was too old to be a swinger, and too young to settle down. Drama School gave him big ideas, but the half-empty houses in theatres when he was touring in dull plays, and dressing up as something stupid during pantomime season was hardly the fame he had imagined. So he had been forced to stay at home with his parents, as he never seemed to have enough money to do anything.
When they both died in the same year, he stayed in the family house, living off the small life insurance payout, and pestering his agent to try to get him a television role. With no luck. It seemed you had to either be young and handsome, or old and a ‘character’. A northern accent would help too, with the popularity of those new ‘kitchen sink’ films, but he had never been good at accents, and still spoke with the refined upper class accent his tutors had urged him to develop. As it got close to his fortieth birthday, Colin faced the harsh reality that he was going to have to get a normal job.
Unusually, the postman rang the bell. He had to sign for the letter, so it was not going to be a birthday card.
After reading the contents four times, Colin still found it hard to believe what was written there. A relative had died, someone he had never heard of. It had taken almost two years for the solicitor to find any living heir, and they had eventually concluded that he was it. He rang the number on the letterhead as requested, and asked to speak to a Mister Paul Shipley, the name typed below the illegible signature. Shipley confirmed that everything was true. He had inherited a house close to Hampstead Heath, and a substantial sum of money too.
He arranged to meet the solicitor at the house in Hampstead the following day, bringing proof of identity with his birth certificate and passport. He would have to sign lots of papers, and then the money would be transferred into his bank account, and the keys to the house handed over.
Dressed in his best ‘business look’, Colin got the early train to London, and then a taxi from St Pancras Station. When they stopped outside the open gates with a driveway leading up to what was a huge old house, he asked the cabby if he was sure it was the right address, and got a grunt in reply. Colin stood and took in the sight. The place must have at least six reception rooms, and maybe ten bedrooms. An old coach house stood to one side, and the windows above suggested that must have rooms too.
Shipley arrived late, with a string of excuses and apologies. He wasn’t what he had expected. Maybe seventy years old, his suit creased and worn, and a worried look that stayed on his face throughout. He produced some keys from a battered briefcase, and they went inside. Colin shook his head, and whistled. The place was grand alright, but in a shocking state. Shipley explained that nobody had lived in the house since before the First World War, and it had taken him a very long time to trace the heirs through the name of Dakin. Finding one Dakin who had remarried to someone called Farr, he had changed direction, and eventually found Colin. He agreed that the place was in a bad state, but he was also sure that the large amount of money would enable it to be fully restored.
Hampstead was fast becoming one of the trendiest places to live in London, but Colin had no intention of living in this old mansion alone. He immediately knew what to do. He would employ architects and builders to convert the house into six luxury flats, and have the coach-house turned into a two-bed mews house for himself. Selling the leases for the flats would bring in a huge amount of money, and he would live rent-free in the coach house, and still own the freehold. He would love to have met the distant relative he had never heard of, and give them a huge kiss. He looked at her name on the paperwork when he was on the train back to Kettering.
Jemima Dakin. He wondered what sort of woman she had been.
One of the builders contacted him to ask what was to be done with a lot of the personal possessions they were finding during the work. Colin told them to store them in the coach house, and he would be down at the weekend to look through them. Sorting through piles of medical books and specimen jars, Colin found a battered old trunk, covered in dust. Inside were lots of papers, a few letters, and many bound journals. They were pretty old, with one he noticed dated 1660. That was over three hundred years ago. He treated himself to a taxi ride all the way back to Kettering, so he could take the trunk with him.
After spending the whole of Sunday reading through everything, sorting it into date order, and laying it all out on the dining room table, Colin could hardly sleep that night.
Early the next morning, he rang his agent, and told Manny to be quiet until he had finished.
“Look, I have found a suitcase containing all of my family history, all the way back to the English Civil War. It’s fascinating stuff, Manny. Murders, executions, locations all over the world, like India and South Africa. It is like the best family saga you have never heard of, believe me. This would be a great book, and an even better telly series, I tell you. But here’s the best bit, Manny. It looks like one of my relatives was the real Jack The Ripper. Honestly, it’s true. I can hardly believe it myself. We need to work on a pitch for this, Manny, and you have to give me a whole afternoon of your time to see how good it is”.
There was a pause at the other end, then a sigh.
“Let me guess, Colin. You want to be cast as Jack”.