Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it
“I don’t understand your meaning, sir.” A little crinkle appeared between Letty’s brows. She folded and unfolded her stitchery, her hands becoming more agitated with every second that passed.
She cast the sewing onto a small side table and began teasing the frayed cuffs of her muslin day dress before standing abruptly. Leaving the doctor behind, she walked over to the small window set deeply into the farmhouse wall. Silence followed. She stared at the rugged slabs of stone that made up the thick wall and kept the winter winds at bay.
The beginning of the week had brought her husband back from the gaming hells of London. He had been sickening from exposure to rain and cold on his journey home and had fallen from his horse. Could life be so ready to change? Were the cards being dealt as she stood here?
The physician was packing up instruments into his old leather bag. There was the clink of draft bottles as they slotted into place, the creak of un-oiled leather, and the click of a stiff clasp.
Letty swung back round to face the retreating doctor. “But surely there is something more that may be done?”
His small white head shook in a well-acted sadness. Perhaps he had given this news a dozen times, perhaps he had given it a hundred times over. His headshake was so perfected and his eyes so full of sympathy. It was a slow and definite last retreat.
“It is merely a matter of nursing him until his time comes.” He paused, wetting his bottom lip before taking a long breath. “Has he drawn up a will?”
Letty’s thoughts scattered everywhere at once. She had not thought about a will. Even the mention of one but two days ago would have seemed unwarranted, almost absurd. Yet here John lay, with waxy skin and red-rimmed eyes, the smell of fever on him. The scent was curious; body odors were mingling with the wood smoke and damp, producing a rank and stale smell.
A will, was that what the doctor had said? John had been in charge of business matters, and he would not have had the forethought to write a will at seven and twenty, or at least not the care.
“I am not sure.” She reached a hand up, unconsciously checking her hair. These were not things she had expected to confront in her second year of marriage.
“I suggest you summon your lawyer as soon as possible. It is hard to estimate how much time your husband has left.”
She nodded dumbly, blinking quickly in a last, vain attempt to understand the enormity of what was happening. A sad smile marked his lips, as though that settled the business. With no more to be done, he took up his case and descended the tight spiral staircase.
Letty followed behind, grappling with the feeling of shock but still aware of her obligation to see the doctor out. In front of the house, the small boy who looked after the farm’s horses, waited with the doctor’s animal. Letty watched the physician mount the small Dartmoor pony. The animal shook his head in impatience for his hay and stable and was only happy once his hooves were falling in a steady beat. John’s wife waited at the door until the creature disappeared from sight.
For a moment she stood silently, contemplating the sentence which had just this evening been hung over her life. The gathering gloom descended upon her still figure, leaving her a lonesome silhouette in the evening farmyard. Dew settled unbidden upon the landscape, the droplets disturbed a little by a sea breeze. The sky was dark—hues of blue, gray, red, and purple all slowly merging into one as night formed above her. In a far off pasture the soft moo of a cow could be heard. The familiar sound brought her back to the problems at hand. She shook off the desire to sleep and, turning on her wooden heel, walked hastily inside.
The moonlight was firmly in control of the rugged landscape outside the window when she finally drifted off. The large winged armchair in her husband’s room had become her home in the past week, ever since he had been taken ill. The heavy woolen blanket, which was now draped across her unconscious frame, had become the roof over her head.
The farmhands had brought John back after finding him unhorsed and drenched on one of the farm tracks. After all, a drunk man was no horseman. Letty had not heard from him while he had been in Town and even his return had been a surprise.
A small fire, which had been lit early in the evening, was glowing sluggishly in the grate. The scent of it had gradually penetrated everything in the room. Objects surrounding the bed were cast in an unusual light. Several rapidly drawn up letters scattered a small desk in the corner of the room, the little amount of wax on each one looking like a small arachnid in the dim light. A bowl of tepid water reflected a little of the firelight, giving the depths an eerie, luminescent appeal. A rag hung over the side of the basin, like a lone shipwreck survivor crawling to safety.
Letty was awakened by nightmares only half an hour after she fell asleep. Too many worries consumed her mind which, until settled, would prevent her from further rest. Soon, realizing the cold had frozen her aching joints, she rose to dab her husband’s brow. He made no indication of consciousness. Pausing a moment, she watched the knitting and un-knitting of his feverous brow before turning and making her way to the desk. She shuffled the letters that lay there into some kind of order and gingerly placed another log on the fire.
She spun on her heel at the sound of the rasping voice. Small feet bore her swiftly from the fireplace to John’s side. She knelt on the wooden floor to better look into his weary eyes. He was groggy, his eyes roving about the room, though Letty could see lucidness as they settled upon her.
“Yes, John? How do you feel?” She dunked the cloth in the basin and made to wipe his beaded brow.
“No, no more of that. You have made me cold enough.” He turned his head from her.
She nodded slightly, placing the rag back into the basin.
“Why has this come upon me?” he cried out suddenly. “I am in such pain!” He writhed on the bed and upset the soiled bed linens.
“How can I make you more comfortable? Your pillows, do you wish to sit up?”
“That’s the last thing I want to do, Lettice. My back, it aches terribly.” He paused. So little strength was left to him; it was an exertion even to speak a single sentence–especially a sentence filled with anger. “My mother was right. We should never have left Town. None of this would have come upon us.”
Her eyes dropped to the disordered bedcovers. “We would never have met.”
He made no response and turned his head away once again. Letty could not stand the feeling of ineptness. She stood up, pausing by the chair, and then made her way to the fire. There was an old loaf of bread left on a cutting board by its side. She was hungry; it was early morning, a long time since she had had her frugal dinner. She started sawing off a piece to toast over the fire.
“Will you not ask if your sick husband wants something to eat?”
“No, but you could at least act the caring wife.”
Letty did not answer. It was best she refrained while John was in this mood. Then, with a sobering feeling, she realized that perhaps there would not be many more of his moods to bear.
“The doctor said…well, he said the fever is not abating. He was worried. You are weakening rather than strengthening.”
“And so I expect he thinks I should call the lawyer.” John coughed, a wracking sound that clawed at his lungs and rattled his core.
“He did mention it, yes.” She did not mean it as an attack, but John took it to be one.
“So quick to make me sign over my fortune. I have been ill but a week.” The well-known scowl lines of his face deepened in a sneer.
“John?” She turned to face him. Despite their differences, to tell a man he was dying could never be an easy thing. How could she approach it? How could she say it?
As it was, she would not have to bear the discomfort of speaking it. He had turned his head away again, and he would not turn it back now. He had read it in her anxious eyes all too clearly. Death was inevitable to all men and to him it would come sooner than to most.
She stayed by his bed, quiet, trying hard to clear her mind of all the thoughts that clamored for attention. It was still dark beyond the walls of the house, dark like her mind which was filled with a hundred worries. She would go on through the night worrying, waiting by his side and watching his pain.
Dawn came slowly. She rose from the chair she had been waiting in and walked round the bed to face him. As her gaze fell on his face, the cockerel crowed. His eyes were cold, distant, and lifeless. His body was pale and hard, the worries of a lifetime written in the lines of his harsh, heavy face. She left him there. She did not close his eyes but walked through the cold house in search of her shawl so that she could go to the village and fetch the funeral men. The lawyer never came and neither did her tears.
John’s body was made ready for burial, and the farm’s tenants were duly informed. Letty would be the only one following the coffin to the graveyard on that bleak walk. No friends came; even family, it appeared, were unable to attend. Letty wondered that John’s mother did not come to bury her son, to see the last trace of his earthly self disappear into the ground. It would not be until later that she would receive a letter explaining that, upon hearing of her son’s death, the mother had locked herself in her room and was refusing to eat or come out. To lose a husband had been the first trial for that mother to overcome, but now a son also within two years was more than she could bear. So Letty was left to walk behind her husband’s coffin alone.
The last of the rich brown earth was tossed carelessly by the gravedigger. The soil sprayed across the grave that contained a body that was once a man. Feeling a cold northerly breeze spring up, Letty clasped the material of her thin pelisse closer. She looked around the deserted graveyard, sighed quietly, and then turned to make the lonely walk home.
* * *
Letty’s mind was absent. Her body, however, was seated in a large leather armchair, the springs of which were becoming rather too obtrusive, while the stuffing was half there and half missing. The chair was in a tiny room at the back of a building that constituted the solicitors’ offices. The rambling structure was situated in the village, a little set back from the other buildings, and was condemned by many to be in a worse state of repair than the infamous blacksmith’s. This was partly due to the age and personality of the main law-working occupants, but it was also because their clientele possessed a low standing and, therefore, a deficient income.
Despite the building’s exterior and the general tattiness of the objects within, it was a tidy little office. Nothing seemed out of place and, unlike most solicitors’ desks, paperwork was not scattered across it. Letty was alone in the room for a long while. The faint mutterings and voices, muffled by the wall, floated in to her. The noises all washed over her, and she did not pay them much attention. How could she be interested in the chit-chat of persons she had never met when her future was being located, shuffled, and glanced over?
The man who would be the bearer of all news concerning her future eventually opened the door. He paused on the threshold. Letty could hear his steady breathing though she did not look round. Her head remained perfectly still, her eyes forward, and she had a politeness about her carriage. She clasped her hands loosely in her lap, ready for whatever would be thrown into them. She may not have had a governess who had taught her fine languages or clever mathematics but, thanks to her parson scholar of a father, she was no fool. That pause upon the threshold was one small thing which warned her of what was to come.
Why would a solicitor pause on the threshold, run a handkerchief over the perspiration that had suddenly beaded on his brow, give four brisk sniffs, and then straighten his plain cravat before facing his client? The answer was plain and it was simple. It whispered itself into Letty’s mind. It said: fear.
She smiled faintly as the solicitor took his seat. He was a short, wiry old man and rather outmatched by the much too large wooden desk. He managed a small, polite smile before he placed the papers he had been carrying carefully out before him. With all of them equally spaced and perfectly straight, he cleared his throat and began.
“Now, Mrs. Burton, ah, here we are, ah, yes. Now I have drawn up and put together all the estate’s values and assets including the farm and the house.” He refrained from using the term “your house”, and that was when she began to realize her true predicament. “I have then compared them to repayments needing to be made, yes, um, now….” He readjusted his wire-rimmed spectacles while the small tuft of white hair in the center of his head quivered. “Yes, ah….”
Letty’s heart was tugged a little by the awkward situation this man had been placed in. She rested a tentative hand on the desk but took care to distance it from the solicitor’s own hands. She captured his gaze with her frank brown eyes. “Mr. Glenville, I am led to believe that sometimes husbands have little to leave to their wives due to unfortunate business circumstances leading up to a sudden death. I understand that this cannot be helped.” She kept her eyes on his, speaking far more with them than with her mouth.
“Yes, yes, of course. So glad you understand, Mrs. Burton. It can cause such upset, you see, when the value of the estate and assets comparative to various debts is read out. That is why—well, never mind that.” He reshuffled the papers then took them up again and read on in a calm, precise voice. When he had finished, Letty remained poised for a few moments longer, allowing the information to take its rightful place in her mind. She had been completely unaware of the debts and the precarious position John had been in before he died.
“I see,” she said finally, with far more firmness than Mr. Glenville had expected. “And now tell me truthfully: can the assets fulfill the repayments in their entirety with anything left over?” Her eyes fell back into focus as she spoke, containing a hardness that had not been there before.
“Well, Mrs. Burton, this is where it gets rather more complex. You see, your husband’s affairs had fallen into, well, how shall I say? Difficult times. Therefore, through my calculations of his estate and the debts he accrued from purchases, as well as the debts from ah…several respectable establishments in London.”
Letty’s neck could not help but tense at the reference to her husband’s regular appearance at some of London’s most fashionable gaming hells. It had not been unusual for him to be away from Cornwall for weeks at a time while he entertained himself in London. She remembered the look of disgust and the lack of farewell as he journeyed away from their house each time he went to the metropolis. How could he, a bred gentlemen, stand to be in the country with little or no entertainment? Coupled with this was the severe lack of society that had attended him ever since his marriage to Letty. So severe were the consequences of his disadvantageous marriage that to spend only moments in his wife’s presence was too much for him to bear.
He would be off, of course, entertaining himself in some hell or another, chasing days of past glory in the far-gone seasons. He met his friends, the ones she was never permitted to see, the ones in front of whom she could only prove an embarrassment. She had often wondered what those friends had heard of her. If it were spoken from John’s lips then it would not be praise. There had been a few times when his words had stung more than his hand upon her—not many, but a few.
“Oh, I beg your pardon, Mr. Glenville. Could you please repeat what you just said?” Letty’s back straightened and her mind returned from that far off place.
“Have no fear, Mrs. Burton.” Mr. Glenville smiled slightly. He liked Lettice Burton, even if she had married above her station. She seemed a sweet girl and yet, as he saw her sitting there, he reflected that she was much changed from the girl he had seen on her wedding day. She no longer looked an innocent, fresh-faced child; she was a woman now, at least about the eyes. There was a sort of wisdom there, a lack of that childlike naivety she had once borne. “I understand this is a difficult time. Losing a spouse is a terrible thing, especially at so young an age.”
Letty bowed her head in assent but behind the eyes that Mr. Glenville had deemed wise, there was no grieving heart. Was that wrong? Letty felt pangs of guilt and yet, as she raised her head again and felt the slight bruising at the back of her neck, the guilt bled away.
“What I was beginning to explain was the financial plan for Highfield. In order to cover the debts owed, I am afraid that the only way is to sell the house and the farm along with it.”
Letty, after several days of widowhood, felt the first tears pricking her eyes. The guilt came back, but it was overcome with sadness. She thought with fondness—and bitterness—of the home she had shared with John, and for a moment could not bear the thought of its inevitable loss.
“I understand, Mr. Glenville. I give you all the authority to see to the matter. I shall prepare the house and farm for a new owner and take my leave of the tenants.”
“Madam, I know this is outside of my authority, but I just wish to inquire—have you anywhere to go? I would not go about selling this property for you if you have no safety.”
Letty smiled at him, his kindness a surprise yet fitting with his winsome face. “It is quite all right, Mr. Glenville. I am sure that my family will take me in.” She said it with a certainty she was far from feeling. “In the meantime, the debts must be paid. Please sell Highfield, and before other debts are settled, take your own wages out of the sum. I do not wish to see you underpaid.”
Mr. Glenville looked down at the desk, shuffling papers in a brisk fashion. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and fluffed it about his nose. He was trying his hardest to smile his thanks without seeming impertinent. When he looked up, he saw a large smile brightening Letty’s mouth and it instantly put him at his ease. The smile remained, covering the anxiety inhabiting her mind and protecting her from further sentiment or questions. She rose to exit.
Mr. Glenville came out from behind his desk and made to take her hand. The sudden movement caused Letty to shrink back instinctively, her arms moving to protect her body. Mr. Glenville’s owl-like eyebrows rose and crinkled in confusion. Letty, her wide eyes taking in what she had just done unconsciously and the harmless gesture of the man which she had misread, dropped her hands to her sides in embarrassment.
“Thank you, Mr. Glenville,” she said, trying to speak as though nothing unusual had just occurred. “You have been exceedingly helpful. If you could send me a missive here and there, to update me on the sale’s progress and debt repayments, I would greatly appreciate it.” She made no move to give him her hand.
The small man, willing to ignore the strange episode, bowed deeply before straightening again. Something flashed in his eyes, but Letty missed the look of admiration he bestowed upon her. She was already crossing the threshold, planning in her mind what needed to be done next.
Letty had barely eaten a thing at lunch, and now, as she was walking to the farm tenants’ houses, a feeling of weakness came over her. She would not be eating until the leave-taking was done, however long it took. The sky was overcast though it was not likely to rain. Letty observed the sun-whitened clouds that threw everything into an oddly naked light.
The dirt track, which she had walked down so many times to oversee the farm work while John was away, was slightly damp thanks to last night’s rain. Her black widow’s garb had been bought at the cheapest price, so if a little mud spattered the hemline she did not much care. She was too used to walking in the country to be bothered about hemlines and complexion.
Her small figure went in and out of the few cottages on the farm. She bade farewell to the many families, the familiar smell of animals and earth in her nose. She was touched by the few words of condolences that were uttered, even if the tenants cared little for the loss of John. She saw their many concerned eyes and knew their feelings were for her.
To them she was the kindly parson’s daughter who came and asked after each and every one of them, never forgetting a name. Yes, they would be sorry to see her go, yet the promise of a new master who might not be as tyrannical as the last was something that gave them hope. Why had the gentleman come from Town to a small piece of Cornwall in the first place? It was a piece of the country scorned by the modish, and clearly it had been scorned by him as well.
Letty knew of the many questions that her union with John had raised. They had been worlds apart in station and they would never have married had it not been for one indiscretion. That one incident, which had been so easily misread, was the reason she had been married for two years to a man who did not love her. If only John had not led her into a compromising situation because of his own desires; if only she had not so easily mistaken his lust for love. He had been a man whom she had thought she loved, and it had taken time for that naivety to fade after their hasty marriage. She had slowly realized his resentment of her, and it was a resentment that had in two years grown savage.
Yet, as she spoke to each tenant she felt a slight loss, a slight sense of pain at the parting she was making from the place that had been her home, no matter the circumstances. She remembered that she needed to write a letter to her parents asking their shelter. Would they be able to take her back into their parsonage? Somehow, it seemed impossible to go back to her childhood home–that place where her father had once tutored John, where they had met, where the unfortunate incident had happened which forced them to marry.
Too much had happened to her, had been inflicted upon her, for her to return to that place where she had once been so innocent. She felt as though the innocence she had worn in her youth had become polluted. She could not return to live the life of someone she would never be again. As the last tenant closed the door behind her, she turned towards her home, and as she walked back in the twilight, she knew that tonight, at least, it was too late to think upon the future.
The following morning brought a letter from Theodora Burton, Letty’s sister-in-law, who resided in Truro. The small, pretty hand, familiar to Letty, brought a little smile to the young widow’s lips. What had her relative been up to now?
Dearest Lettice, 17 October 1815
How are you? I am so sad to hear of John’s passing away. It was such a dreadful shock! I actually said to Mrs. Grockel, my housekeeper, how sudden it was. I even dropped my paintbrush when I read the letter you sent me about it. (I was in the midst of decorating a small cabinet and now it is totally ruined as I dropped a black paintbrush right in the middle. I have no idea what to do about it. Mrs. Grockel said to paint it one color again. I told her if she wished to spend hours repainting the pattern she is welcome to it!)
Anyway, I am getting quite beside the point! Mr. Burton—well, David to you, I suppose, since you are family—has become quite ill, and as I thought you may be in need of some company and so shall I, I am inviting you to come and stay with us a while. Would you like to? Please say yes, for if I only have Mrs. Grockel to speak to I may fall ill myself, though I do not wish to exaggerate, of course.
I hope everything is well with you, dear sister, and I look forward to seeing you soon. I send my love—
Your dearest sister-in-law,
Letty folded the letter and laid it in her lap. She turned to gaze out of the parlor window onto green fields that heaved up and fell away outside. Her thumb stroked the thick paper; perhaps it would be good to visit Theo. It had been a long time since she had seen her and it would be a way to save her parents any expense. Her father had been graced with a decent parish, but that did not mean money had ever been plentiful. The thought of her father only brought her mind back to John. If only money had not been so scarce when she had been young! Her father would not have had to take on gentlemen to tutor. She would never have met John, and they would never have married in a desperate attempt to avert the scandal.
She suddenly shook herself. What was she doing? Self-pity would help nothing. The past was set in stone and ultimately unchangeable. She must think of the future. If she could not change past actions, she could at least try to survive the present. She reprimanded herself and then, flicking the long plait of hair she had been fiddling with back over her shoulder, she rose clasping the letter. She sat in John’s old chair at the large wooden desk, the high back overshadowing her, and took out a sheet of paper. Once the letter to Theo was finished, sealed, and sent, Letty went about packing the few dresses she owned into a small trunk. She saw to the business of the farm, and finally coming back to Highfield, she began saying goodbye to her home.
And so the farm, the house, and all the possessions therein were left to the debt collectors. Letty took her final leave with only a small trunk and a portmanteau to her widowed name. She removed to her sister-in-law’s house in Truro. While Theodora’s husband remained sick, Letty would be the young wife’s comforter and companion.
The widow remembered with such clarity the day on which she left: the crisp morning air that pinched at her cheeks before she stepped up into the carriage; the sweet smell of earth that was laced with traces of briny sea air; the wind that flung her long hair back and forth, loosing it from the contraptions imprisoning it; the sky that was thick shades of iron gray and layers of towering clouds building above; the heath and shrub covered landscape in all its unruly beauty she knew so well—all was left to the elements behind her. The animals were hidden away in warm homes together, the only farewell being the natural blow of westerly winds.
The harshly sprung carriage afforded a small view of the country which she loved through a murky pane of glass. This view she engraved in her mind’s eye. She would keep it for a time when she needed to know there was a place like heaven, a paradise somewhere.
Philippa Jane Keyworth – Historical Romance Author