Henry Cranston paced the drawing room, dressed in his best suit, adjusting his high collar slightly as he passed the mirror. He had very little desire to meet the man. He did however have a an overwhelming yearning to escape from the continual nagging of his mother and sister and this seemed the only way to accomplish it peacefully.
‘Do sit down, Henry,’ snapped his mother, ‘you’re wearing away the carpet.’
He ignored her. His eyes chanced upon Arabella, his young niece. She looked white. Perhaps she expected him to descend upon the young man like a hungry lion, or throw him from house.
He was on the verge of speaking a word of comfort when his sister piped up.
‘Oh Henry, sit down now. You’re making us dizzy, there’s no need to pace so. Mr Darroch is a highly respectable young man, your apprehension is getting on our nerves, sit down and behave like a man, not a baby.’
‘A what, you…’
The door opened, an argument was averted.
‘Mr Neil Darroch,’ announced the footman.
He entered, visibly shaking, like a man being led to the gallows. Henry wondered what stories the women had spread about him to make the young man look so anxious.
He waited until his mother and sister had poured greetings and compliments all over the poor soul. The cautious reunion between the betrothed couple struck him as a little forced, a gentle smile returned with a faint blush. Perhaps it was his presence that prevented a more animated show of affection, even a kiss of the hand would have seemed in order.
Henry paced a little more, wondering when the clucking would stop. He felt quite invisible, a strange condition considering the weight they had all put on this meeting. Once again he realised it was only his money that made him important, without it he would disappear. He was a man of no significance, no distinction, he had bought everything he needed but earned nothing other than cold hard riches.
Finally done with her cooing over the new arrival, Mrs Cranston introduced her son. Henry shook hands with Mr Darroch, he could still feel a slight tremble. The man seemed somewhat meek. For his niece however, that would suit terribly well, she was one of the most insipid creatures he’d ever come across. Her temperament lacked any sensation whatsoever, she moved liked a statue on wheels, gliding serenely, hardly moving a limb. When she spoke it was monotonous, her conversation was dull and languid, she never smiled or frowned, slight changes in the colour of her complexion were the only indication that she was a living creature, not simply a talking figurine.
His mother and Prudence were talking, Mr Darroch was listening very attentively, sitting upright and nodding vigorously, laughing on cue and sympathising if necessary. It was an interesting spectacle. He did not enter into the conversation himself, there was no point. Listening for anything vaguely amusing in their talk was tiresome enough as he was wholly turned off by the dull chat about people he didn’t know or care for and even more so by the constant compliments and admiration bestowed on Mr Darroch.
He wondered if they would ever get to the point, or if there even was a point. Had they primed the poor boy to beg for a hand out? Or advised him to ask subtly, using excuses like how it would enable them to marry straight away. Or were they just whittling the afternoon away trying to make Mr Darroch seem irresistible so that Henry would simply stand up at the end of the day and announce that he’d been so taken with Mr Darroch that he was going to bestow his niece with a whopping dowry and pack them off to be married straight away. That would be the easiest option, he knew however, no mater how much he gave her, it would never be enough. Not if he settled on the figure. If the ladies themselves were allowed to choose, he knew they would ask too much, it would be completely unreasonable. Mr Darroch was a man of business, he had the right to earn his own fortune. Giving him a huge sum now would do nothing but render him a lazy and indolent, not something Henry wanted for his niece. It may seem the easy option now but it did nothing for society, he did not approve, it made Neil Darroch little more than a worthless charity case, though the sums involved were considerably more. He wondered how much Mr Darroch would dare ask, if he would ever have the nerve to speak at all. If the request came from that quarter it was likely to be more modest and the women couldn’t blame Henry for being stingy or grudging, he would merely be fulfilling the man’s request.
Tea came and went as the talk continued, the pattern unvarying. Sipping his tea, Henry wondered if his niece and Mr Darroch had ever managed to talk to one and other alone, how had he proposed? The opportunity for them to be left in peace for long enough seemed impossible. Henry concluded it was most likely done in a letter, he wondered if they had ever in fact been alone in each other’s company. What a shock it would be after the wedding, would they talk for days on end to release all the things they’d never been permitted to say or would they be silent, unable to find anything to discuss, nobody to supply them with endless tattle to agree or sympathise with.
With winter now upon them, the nights were closing in much faster; the afternoon seemed likely to end in stalemate. Henry’s silence hadn’t been challenged.
‘I should probably get back to town, before nightfall,’ said Neil Darroch, ‘my brother’s expecting me back this evening.’
Mrs Cranston looked vexed, ‘Henry, have you anything to say to him, before he leaves.’
‘Indeed I do,’ said Henry, rubbing his hands together, ‘Mr Darroch, I’ll accompany you back to town. I have business of my own there.’
Mrs Cranston and her daughter exchanged looks of surprise, they knew nothing of this plan but didn’t voice their vexation in front of Mr Darroch.
‘I must change for the journey; I’ll meet you outside in half an hour.’
No time was wasted in retrieving his greatcoat, his bag was already packed. Pleading the necessity for haste, he left his mother and sister dumbfounded as he headed for the main door.
He arrived outside at half past three. Neil was waiting, his horse in hand. His own brougham was brought up seconds later.
‘We’ll take my carriage if you don’t mind, to the city,’ said Henry, ‘my man will ride your horse, you can take reclaim him when we arrive. We can talk better this way.’
If he objected, there was nothing he could do. Saying nothing, he allowed his horse to be taken by the manservant.
They boarded the carriage moments later. Neil Darroch seemed struck by a vow of silence.
Sheepskin rugs covered the seats but they didn’t completely exclude the cold. Henry rubbed his gloved hands on his legs attempting to increase their warmth.
‘I have no objection to you marrying my niece,’ said Henry, without preamble. It was time to get to the point, ‘when do you propose the event takes place?’
‘Well sir,’ said Neil, a slight tremor in his voice, ‘there’s a difficulty with that.’
‘I thought there might be,’ said Henry, ‘a financial difficulty I suppose? One that can only be overcome if I endow my niece with a substantial dowry or an allowance perhaps.’
‘Please, I don’t wish it to appear that I’m only after her money.’
‘Good,’ said Henry, ‘because as it stands, she has none.’
‘And that’s fine,’ said Neil, quickly, ‘I want to marry her anyway, for… love.’
He looked extremely embarrassed. The carriage moved off with a lurch.
‘Love? I’m glad you think such a thing is possible.’
‘I do,’ said Neil.
‘Then I admire your conviction, I personally don’t believe in such a thing, but I respect your certainty. So you will marry her as she is?’
‘I will, though the problem won’t go away. My income might increase in time, I certainly hope so but I’d like to be able to keep Arabella in the style that she’s used to, she deserves that and I’m not sure my means will allow it, and… well, I have a brother.’
‘And why is that a problem?’
‘We live in the same house, without each other we couldn’t afford such a grand residence, we’d both have to move. I don’t know if Arabella could cope in such reduced circumstances.’
Henry looked out at the darkening world, sleety rain had started to fall and the trees looked suddenly bare, ghastly long fingers pointing upwards. Icy droplets spattered the carriage windows.
‘Let’s say I was to give my niece the allowance she needs, enough to let you stay in your current abode until you have the means to fund it yourself. Even with that I can’t do anything for your brother. I’m not here to subsidise you and your whole family simply because you wish to marry my niece.’
‘Indeed, I know sir,’ said Neil, ‘and if we marry, I’ll come to some other arrangement with my brother.’
‘That’s your business. Mine is to discover just exactly what you propose a sensible figure for this dowry, you haven’t yet named your price.’
The carriage jolted over some rough ground that shook their bones, Henry wondered if the additional movement had actually been caused by the renewed trembling of Neil Darroch. He waited.