The drawing room of the handsome grey-granite, Georgian townhouse in Crown Street was a picture of festive cheer. The large mantelpiece was decorated with holly sprays and pomanders, infused with oranges, cloves and berries. A rich scent of warm spices filled the air and a crackling fire warmed the room.
Mrs Juliet Colquhoun rested in a high backed armchair, reposing languidly and contemplating her slender fingers, breathing in the festive aromas that reminded her of her childhood at Tharstaine.
It would’ve been nice if the snow had waited just one more week, a snowfall on Christmas morning was something special, but the children enjoyed it whenever it chose to arrive. She listened to their calls of delight from outside in the street, they’d been out in it all day. She hoped not to be about when their nurse came in, complaining of her chilblains and head cold. Juliet had already spent the morning researching cures for these maladies but was disappointed to find that they didn’t have all the necessary ingredients. She wondered at their effectiveness anyway. When nurse had something wrong she knew how to milk it and better no cure than one that didn’t work anyway.
The door opened and a maid entered.
‘A message, madam.’
Juliet stretched out a lazy hand and took the note without straightening up. Opening it, she read.
‘Oh my,’ she said, jumping up.
‘Madam, are you all right?’
‘Fetch my husband this instant.’
Moments later, Archie Colquhoun came into the room looking worried.
‘What’s the matter, my dear, are you ill?’
‘No indeed. I have a note, it’s from my Uncle Henry. He’s here in town, right as we speak and he’s coming to stay, until this snow lifts, oh my goodness.’
Dramatically, she sank back into the chair.
‘Right, well, we better get a room made up. Why is he in town?’
‘Lord knows, why is he coming here, more to the point? He hates us, I don’t recall that he’s ever been here above an hour before. Staying the night! The man’s insufferable, he’s so rude and arrogant, oh, I can’t take it, not in my condition.’
Archie knelt down beside her chair and took her hand. Juliet fanned her face with her hand, suddenly the fire seemed too warm.
‘Don’t over exert yourself, just stay calm. I’ll see to him, I’m sure he’ll be on best behaviour, he wouldn’t want us to evict him in this weather. This is my house, he’s my guest, he’ll behave on my terms.’
Juliet heaved a great sigh, ‘I hope so, but you don’t know my uncle Henry, not like I do.’
‘And just where do you think you’re going?’
Katy stood blocking the door in the passageway, her hair sparkling with droplets of melting snow from a quick dash outside. A flurry had started again and the wind was whipping the powered flakes on the ground it into great mounds and walls.
Henry stared at her. She wasn’t particularly tall but she seemed a tower of strength. He could almost feel the energy around her, she was like a great battleship. He put his case on the ground and began pulling on his gloves.
‘Where I’m going is none of your business, young lady.’ he said, fixing her with a stern gaze.
‘I know,’ said Katy, in a measured tone, ‘but you must be insane if you’re thinking about going out there.’
‘Indeed my mental faculties are in perfect order than you. Your concern is noted, but I really must go. If you’ll please let me out.’
‘Fine,’ said Katy, standing aside, ‘out you go, but you’ll probably catch pneumonia or maybe even die, but it won’t be my fault. I’ve warned you, that’s all I can do, but where you think you’re going to go, I have no idea. You won’t get any coaches today, you won’t even get a horse. Mad, mad, mad.’
‘Have you quite finished? Your concern really is touching,’ he said smoothly, ‘but I’m not going far, not that its any of your business. I have relatives in town, less than half an hour away, I’m sure I’ll last that long. Now please, excuse me.’
He pulled open the heavy door and left. Perching his top hat on his head, he bent it low as he pushed his way into the blizzard. The snow was heavier than he thought but he strode off as smartly as he could.
A well-dressed lunatic, thought Katy, and she slammed the door tight shut. As she stepped into the passage she saw a small glint of gold on the floor. Stooping over it, she could see it was a small piece of jewellery. She picked it up and turned it over in her hand, it was a very handsome tie-pin.
‘The idiot must’ve dropped it,’ she said aloud. She opened the door and looked out, if he was within sight the snow made sure she couldn’t see him. Hastening back inside she slammed the door tight. He probably wouldn’t miss it, he was as rich as Croesus, if he did want it he’d come back for it another day. Katy pinned it to her collar and smiled, that would suffice as a handsome tip.
Henry battled the bitter storm raging around. As he passed open alleys, the wind rushed down with great swoops, almost removing his hat. He clung onto it. His gloved hands were numb despite their leather cladding, he clung to the handle of his small case but he couldn’t feel it. The turbulent flurry of flakes rendered the air silent or perhaps his ears were simple too cold to work. The young lady at the inn was right, he should’ve stayed put. It might be a place little better than a pigsty but it was warmer than this. Spending a whole day and another night in that place might just push him too far, the company was tedious, beyond tedious, it was downright insufferable and vulgar. The society he expected to find at his niece’s would be equally as irritating but with the saving grace of being in a clean, spacious house and, above all, free from riffraff and the unbearable smell of rotting fish that festered in every establishment, and on every person, that close to the dock.
It took longer than half an hour to reach Crown Street. Henry knew the ways round the city better than the lines on his own face, but even that intensive knowledge couldn’t prevent the disorientating whirl of the snow in his eyes and the altering affect it had on the landscape. Even this was only a partial concern, the sheer depth of the snow made each footfall heavy and he had to work twice as hard as usual to keep going at all. Several times he almost lost his footing.
When he saw his destination appear, he noticed he was breathing, the difficulty of the journey seemed to have made him forget to do so or, at least, to notice. An all consuming desire to reach that door was upon him.
The bell rang.
Henry imagined that the flurry inside the house would be even more tempestuous than the swirling snow beyond. The short notice of his arrival was unlikely to gain him popularity.
He waited in the hallway, relieving himself of coat, gloves, hat and bag. He hoped their drawing room was warmer than this hallway.
‘Mr Henry Cranston’, announced the maid.
Feeling very light and free after discarding his outer clothing he also felt his skin warm and stretched. As he entered he had a quick view of his reflection in their large mirror, his usually white face was pink from the strenuous exposure to the elements. The room was roasting, a large fire crackled and danced in the hearth. He suddenly wished for a very large drink.
Juliet, hauled into her best gown as tightly as her condition would allow, stood fanning herself, trying to look cool and relaxed but Henry could see how irritated she was, he recognised it from the strong resemblance to her mother in similar circumstances. Her husband stood rigid, only his foot twitched slightly, seemingly his urge to pace was suppressed either by Henry’s arrival or the desire not too upset his wife any further.
They exchanged greetings in a very straight and formal manner and silence ensued, each hoping one of the others would start a conversation. Eventually, Archie spoke, indicating they should all sit.
‘How did you get here? It looks terrible out there, we weren’t sure what to think when we got your note, were you already in town?’
‘Yes, I arrived yesterday. I was staying at an Inn, but it didn’t suit to stay any longer. I hope this isn’t an imposition?’
‘No, of course,’ said Archie, ‘you’re family after all.’
Henry gave him a gracious smile. Family indeed, he could tell they wished he was a hundred miles away, but their manners were good enough not to say so openly. Henry looked around the room for want of something to do as the silence extended. It was over festive for his liking. The tables that were already so cluttered with mats, pictures, lamps and ornaments had been further encumbered with bowls of nuts and dried fruit, set round with poinsettia and embroidered ribbon. No doubt Juliet had spent months creating them bit by bit to exactly resemble a picture in one of her lady’s magazines
‘How long to you intend to stay,’ asked Juliet, betraying a hint of the sentiment she was so heartily suppressing.
‘Not too long I hope,’ said Henry, returning his gaze to her flustered face, ‘I didn’t mean to stay at all. I planned to travel home this evening but the weather has made that quite impossible.’
‘Of course,’ said Archie, ‘you had business in town?’
‘Indeed, I arrived yesterday with Mr Darroch, he intends to marry your sister, Arabella. Were you aware of that?’
Juliet perked up, her interest aroused.
‘Why yes, I am very well aware of that, that is, I knew he had a great deal of interest. I thought there were complications though.’ She glanced from her uncle to her husband.
‘I don’t think so,’ said Henry, ‘if you mean the matter of my consent, then there was never any doubt. Your mother is perfectly capable of vetting husbands for her daughters without me, but I’ve agreed to it. He strikes me as a perfectly reasonable young man. What other complications were you imagining?’
She looked slightly puzzled. Henry recalled that, even as a child, she had never been blessed with much brainpower. She seemed to be trying to work out something very difficult.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, at length, deflating slightly as the puzzled expression worked her features.
‘I understand he has some unusual circumstances to do with living arrangements, doesn’t he currently rent a house in town with his brother?’ said Archie.
‘Yes, that’s what I meant,’ said Juliet, brightening up.
‘It might work for now that they’re both bachelors,’ continued Archie, ‘but I suppose it will have to change if either one marries, though perhaps not, I’m not sure how they will make it work.’
‘That’s not really my concern,’ said Henry, ‘he lives as he chooses just now, when he marries Arabella he’ll continue to live as best suits him.’
‘But I do feel sorry for his brother,’ said Juliet, ‘he’s very sweet.’ She blushed and was silent. Neither man spoke. Everyone was avoiding the eyes of everyone else.
‘What I meant,’ she said, a few moments later, ‘is that he behaves very well, I’ve met him at dinner parties with Neil. It just seems a shame that if Neil marries, poor George will be left to fend for himself.’
Henry furrowed his brow wondering if he’d made a mistake of prodigious dimensions.
‘This George,’ he said, ‘is he a child? What age is he?’
‘Oh no,’ said Juliet, ‘he’s, I don’t know exactly, I imagine about the same age as me, twenty three or four.’
‘Then I don’t really understand all the fuss,’ said Henry, ‘he’s a grown man with a good occupation and a reliable income, he should have no difficulty making his own way.’
‘That’s true,’ said Archie, ‘I have to agree.’
‘But…’ Juliet began but couldn’t manage to put her objection into words.
Henry looked at her, waiting.
‘Well, it’s just a shame… a shame we can’t… help him.’
‘And how do you propose to do that?’ said Henry, looking at the large gold clock on the mantelpiece, he’d been in the house nigh on twenty minutes and already, he could feel it, she was going to tell him how to spend his money or moreover how she would like to spend it for him. As everyone always did. She was going to tell him he should help this unknown man because it was a ‘shame’ that he might suffer a small reduction in his living standards if his brother married. A reduction that may last only a few weeks or might not even happen, all circumstances that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with him, and yet, he would be demonised.
He imagined them all in a few months’ time, dressed in the most ludicrous garments, their faces in his mind like grotesque caricatures, shifting around the assemblies, whispering. Whispering about him. Henry, Henry Cranston, all his fault, poor George, poor, poor George. If only Henry had helped him, he’s got all that money and he wouldn’t spare a penny of it, not a penny, not a penny for poor, poor George.
‘I don’t know,’ said Juliet sadly, ‘we haven’t got the means to help him, we would, if we could.’
Henry looked at Archie, who was struggling to keep his expression blank. Henry doubted whether Archie shared his wife’s sentiments, he was probably glad that helping George Darroch was beyond his means.
‘A man in his circumstances shouldn’t want help,’ said Henry, though he knew perfectly well from experience that there were always lazy men who would take help in any circumstances if it meant no disruption to their easy lives, ‘he would think it a base insult if a stranger were to give him a handout. He’s not a charity case. If that were me, I’d be horrified at the thought of it. Perhaps he might remain with his brother until he marries himself, perhaps he will make his own fortune in no time at all. We should have the decency to give the man credit enough that he’ll make his own way out of his difficulties. That is the only help he needs from us, belief in his own abilities.’