The sun was about to set. Despite the unpleasant start, Mr Henry Cranston reflected that all in all it hadn’t been a bad day, he watched from the dining room window of Tharstaine House, as the red embers of the sunset flickered behind the trees lining the edge of the estate. The thunder storms of the previous night had left an almost completely clear day; the few lingering showers had washed the scenery and enhanced its splendour, even in the ensuing darkness he could pick out the pleasing shapes of the formal garden, the terrace and the circular pond with the pillared fountain in the centre. He was glad of these simple, pleasant visions to take his mind off other matters. The night spent in that dreadful inn, hard beds and stained wallpaper, a breakfast fit only for a peasant and truly objectionable staff. That however was the least of his concerns. This house, though grand and well furnished was like an infested carcass buzzing with angry flies all wanting to taste flesh and draw blood. There was no peace, no space, no escape from harassment.
With dinner finished, his instincts were to remove to his study straight away, but it wasn’t to be.
His mother, sister and nieces required his presence. He imagined the cosy picture it should’ve been, a happy family sitting together, talking, enjoying each other’s company. The nieces delighted at the return of their uncle, the sister kind and welcoming, the mother gently docile, watching over her brood, glowing with pride. Nothing could be further from the reality.
The atmosphere in the drawing room was like that of a funeral. The stark furnishings and upright chairs were filled with matching occupants. Their satin dinner gowns rustled as they shifted about in their chairs, a fire glowed but did little to warm the atmosphere. Mrs Cranston, her face shrivelled and lined, not from age but from constant frowning, stared at her son as he entered the room, her eyes mere slits. On her left sat her daughter, almost identical in looks to her mother but with twenty years less frown lines. They looked like two tyrannical queens planning a campaign of terror. Of the nieces, two had been sent to bed, too young to witness the evening ‘entertainment’. Two remained, sitting quietly, perhaps out of manners but Henry suspected more from fear. Not fear of him, fear of misbehaving, looking out of place or speaking in a manner not befitting a young lady. Henry thought they were probably wise to remain quiet, that way they could safely avoid these pitfalls. The second he took his seat in the corner, four pairs of angry eyes fixed on him.
‘Well done Henry.’
He looked at the fire as his sister, Prudence, spoke, his only surviving sibling, a widow and a force to be reckoned with. She smoothed the folds of her lavish dress, a dress that like everything else she owned, his money had paid for.
‘You’ve succeeded again in offending everyone you come in contact with. I really don’t know how you do it. A fine example you set your nieces. You realise that without a father for six years, it’s you they look to for guidance, poor Frances hardly knew her father, she was only a baby when he died. But as for you, how could you do that to Arabella?’
Her last words were not spoken but shrieked, she stood up looking quite formidable.
Henry however was used to this behaviour, he glanced back at her, completely unaffected.
‘And what exactly have I done to you child?’ he asked his niece directly.
She looked suddenly feeble and embarrassed.
‘You know very well what you’ve done,’ snapped Prudence, ‘you let her intended ride out here yesterday, with his brother in that dreadful weather and you didn’t even bother to show up.’
‘Stop right there,’ said Henry, he too stood up. He was taller than his sister and the flaring temper that she had inherited from their mother, burned for a moment equally as strong in him, ‘you made no indication that it was compulsory for me to be there, I thought this man was merely visiting Arabella and I was welcome, if I could make it, that is how it was put to me. Now however, you seem to have decided that I was meant to be there and that somehow my not being here has caused some irreparable damage. I’ve sent the man a note of apology but you seem to be putting a much higher value on this meeting than is necessary. If the man wants to marry Arabella, then I have no objection. She’s not my daughter, if you think the man good enough then far be it for me to venture my opinion. You’ve already married off your eldest and I don’t remember any such fuss, I wasn’t asked for my opinion on that occasion, so I don’t see why it is necessary in this case.’
‘This case is different,’ said their mother, ‘the man in question is not so well set up.’
Henry laughed, though he felt anything but happy, ‘thank you mother,’ he said, ‘for bringing us to the point so quickly, that’ll save a lot of tedious discussion.’
‘What do you mean?’ snapped Prudence.
‘Why didn’t you just ask me for the money, how much do you want to sell your daughter for this time?’
‘How dare you,’ Prudence and their mother spoke in unison.
‘Crass maybe,’ said Henry, ‘but in essence the sad fact.’
‘Indeed it is not,’ said Mrs Cranston, ‘we are not talking about selling anyone, a gift is what’s in order and I might add, something that would be given were her father still alive.’
‘How so?’ said Henry.
‘Her father would have the means to pay for her obviously. As he is not here the duty falls to you and as your mother I order you to give it to her. I may remind you that the money you claim as yours is in part your father’s and therefore we have as much claim to it as you, despite what the ludicrous laws of the land may say.’
‘You do,’ said Henry, ‘and I’ve never denied it. You live in this house, you have all the finery you require, you live in a style well beyond the means that my father left. His money dried up years ago, most of it in the bricks that built this place. The money you live on now, is mine and I’d thank you to remember that before you start ordering me as to what I should do with it.’
‘So, what does that mean,’ said Prudence, sweeping round the room in agitation, ‘you refuse to do your duty by your niece.’
‘I didn’t say so, but what I will not do is have my hand forced by your bullying. Perhaps I have plans for my own money.’
‘Like what?’ scoffed Prudence, as though she had never heard such a ridiculous notion.
‘I might marry, have children of my own, a man at forty isn’t as disadvantaged as a woman.’
‘What lunacy is this,’ said Prudence, hardly able to control herself, ‘you marry? Henry, that is simply the most unbelievable excuse for being such a miserable miser that you’ve ever come up with. Who on earth would marry you? You’re impossible.’
Her laughter hadn’t died when he answered.
‘You’d be surprised, I just need to open my wallet and I have a string of young women stuck to my heels.’
‘Do not be so vulgar in front of your nieces,’ snapped Mrs Cranston, ‘your sordid affairs in the city are of no interest to us.’
Before he had the chance to correct her spurious conclusion, Prudence laughed even louder and said, ‘no mother, he doesn’t mean that. Henry is far too buttoned up, you should know that by now. He’s merely testing us. I daresay it’s true, you could attract some simple-minded beauty into being your unfortunate wife. In fact, I’d like to see it. You whine about never getting a moment of peace and quiet, think what it would be like with a lovely young wife. She’d always want your opinion, your company, your love… how could you cope? Yes, I can see why you’d want to marry, go ahead, I look forward to the day, I really do.’
‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘or perhaps you’re worried about someone taking your place, if my wife were to be mistress here, what would you do then?’
‘Leave her to it,’ said Prudence, ‘I’d be very interested to see how she copes, you may dream of finding a wife who’ll run this place for you but you’re sorely mistaken. I wager any new wife of yours would be crawling to me within days of arriving here… and you’d love that wouldn’t you.’
Settling beside her mother, they began whispering, when Henry picked up a book he heard the nieces joining in. If he’d wanted, he could have heard every word they were saying but he really couldn’t bring himself to care.
The words on the page merged together. He wasn’t really reading them, he was thinking. He could procure a wife for himself if he wanted. At the few dinner parties he ever attended he was besieged by single women or their parents, he knew none of them would look twice at him were it not for his bank balance. He’d stopped attending these occasions for that very reason, he felt like a portable bank. But did it really matter? Prudence was right on some counts, a wife could be an added an annoyance but she was wrong on one point. His wife wouldn’t want his love, that was the last thing women wanted from him, perhaps it was just as well as he really. His mind sat divided. He enjoyed his independence but the thought of bringing home a wife and seeing the look on their faces made him feel invincible. The danger was that she would do just as Prudence predicted and fall into their crowd, become one of them, just another woman in his life to use him as a punch ball. If he was going to do it he would have to choose carefully, he needed someone with spirit, a woman that would stand her ground with his family. Was it possible to add to that the requirement that she might also like him as well? If she did it would render the situation perfect, Prudence wouldn’t be able to corrupt her if she was loyal to him. But finding a wife like required more than just money, he’d have to work hard to find someone like that, treat her well, spoil her, be romantic and caring… all the things he was no good at.