The riders galloped their horses over the spring grass. They skirted thorny thickets and flew over stone-filled ditches. They cleared the last hedgerow, green with new leaves, and pulled their mounts to a sliding stop in front of a man at the top of a low hill.
The girl jumped off her horse and ran to the man. “Father, he’s the most wonderful horse in the world! Did you see him take the last fence?”
“Ellanor, it’s a miracle you didn’t break your neck.” Master George Fitzhugh, gentleman, laughed. He gave his daughter a hug and then held a hand out to the second rider. “Good ride, Son, but I think she had you in the end.”
“Did she? I think not.” Paul shook his head.
“I did,” said his sister.
Master Fitzhugh put his arm around his daughter’s shoulders. “So, my girl, you like him, do you? ”
“He’s perfect. I’m going to call him Charlemagne.”
“Charlemagne!” Paul made a face. “What an awful name for a horse.”
“Well, dear brother, he bested your horse. Old Blacky there could hardly keep up.”
“I’ll have you know I had him under close rein all the way.” Paul tugged a lock of his sister’s red hair. “And, his name’s Arthur, a good English name.”
Master Fitzhugh pulled his children close to him. “ ’Twas a grand sight, you two coming across the field neck and neck. Perhaps we shouldn’t mention the fence jumping to your mother. Let’s walk back so the horses can cool down. ”
Paul shivered in the evening air.
“Just a chill. Supper and a night’s rest will put me right.”
After eating only a bowl of soup, however, Paul took to his bed. “A bit tired,” he said, “and a headache.”
By morning Mistress Elizabeth Fitzhugh was certain that her eldest child and only son was ill of the influenza. Though many folk in the nearby towns of Bath and Wells had taken to their beds with the fever, she had hoped her family, living in the country, might be spared. She prayed silently as she bathed her son’s face with cool cloths. She applied plasters to Paul’ s chest to ease his breathing and burned herbs to sweeten the air in his room.
Paul’s cough worsened. He tossed on his bed and spoke fevered words none could understand.
Two days later Master and Mistress Fitzhugh buried their son. Only Mary Hartley, Baroness of Wilthrop, their neighbor to the north, walked with them behind the wagon that bore Paul’s coffin. All others shuttered their homes and feared to walk out in the
At the grave site the vicar read the burial service. When he read, “Lord, Thou hast been our refuge, from one generation to another,” Ellanor’s father put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her to him. Mistress Fitzhugh cried quietly into her handkerchief and leaned on the arm of Lady Wilthrop.
Each of the mourners sprinkled a handful of soil onto the coffin. In the background the vicar continued, “Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God, in His wise providence, to take out of this world the soul of our deceased Paul Fitzhugh, we therefore commit his body to the ground . . .”
Coaches arrived to take them home.
Master Fitzhugh kept his daughter close that spring. When he returned from business in the port city of Bristol, he and Ellanor rode out across Bishop’s Manor. They spoke of matters important to the manor and surveyed a new pond that provided water for the sheep in an upper pasture. They heard petitions of the manor’s tenants. One asked that the leaky roof of his cottage be fixed. Another requested permission to graze a second cow on the commons.
Late in June, father and daughter rode through a grove of ancient oak trees. Master Fitzhugh said, “It’s been the joy of my life making these lands the best in the West Country. I haven’t done badly for an old merchant.”
Ellanor reined Charlemagne in and looked around. “I can’t imagine a lovelier place in all of England.”
Her father nodded. “Nor can I.” He hesitated. “It will provide you with a worthy dowry. ”
Ellanor nodded. Any reminder that Paul would not share in this beauty saddened her.
“I have a bit of news,” Master Fitzhugh continued.
Ellanor sat enjoying the warmth of the sun. “Hmmm?”
“Lady Wilthrop has offered to serve as your chaperone in London—”
Ellanor turned toward her father. Her jaw dropped open, and she didn’t seem to be able to close it.
Master Fitzhugh chuckled. “I thought that would surprise you.” He watched his daughter’s face. “Say something, my dear.”
“London?” Ellanor’s voice squeaked. “I don’t have to think a moment about going to London! What a frolic!”
Her father smiled. “It wouldn’t be until the end of summer. I thought you might like a change of scenery.” His voice trailed away.
“How thoughtless of me. I can’t go on holiday, not so soon after . . . after . . .”
“Paul’s death,” her father finished for her.
“It doesn’t seem right.”
Her father’s horse shifted under him, and he took some time bringing his mount alongside Charlemagne. “It’s more than a holiday, Ellanor. You’ll stay for the winter at least.”
“A whole season in London?” This was beyond Ellanor’s grandest dreams.
“You will learn the ways of the City and become a proper lady yourself. You know I’ve always wanted more for Paul, for you, for the name of Fitzhugh. I’m asking, my daughter, if you are willing to take up the task left unfinished by your brother.”
Ellanor’s smile faded to an expression of disbelief. “Me?”
Her father continued. “It’s still possible for our family to gain a title by marriage.” He reached out and took her hand. “You’re a lovely girl and will marry well one day. Why not marry a nobleman?”
Ellanor pulled her hand from her father’s. “I’m only fourteen.”
“You’ve grown up so much this year. Besides, you wouldn’t marry immediately, perhaps some months . . .” Master Fitzhugh’s voice became pleading.
“A year, perhaps. And, you’d enjoy some time in London as well. Ellanor, please don’t cry.”
The fields of Bishop’s Manor broke into flashes of green and gold as tears filled Ellanor’s eyes. She turned away from her father. “That was for Paul, not for me.”
“You are the family’s hope. The opportunity is there. Lady Wilthrop has offered.”
Ellanor turned away.
They rode home in silence.
“Ellanor? You’ve not been riding with your father for over a week or said more than three words. Are you ill?” Mistress Fitzhugh tied a straw hat over her hair.
“No, I’m quite well, really.” Ellanor did not look up from her book.
“Perhaps a walk will lift your spirits. I’d enjoy your company.”
They walked through the front garden, past Mistress Fitzhugh’s much-loved roses, then down a tree-shaded lane. Each walked in an earthen track worn by cart wheels. Between them grew tall grasses and weeds.
“Isn’t this a lovely day?” asked Mistress Fitzhugh.
Ellanor nodded. She caught the stem of a flowering weed and pulled it free.
Mistress Fitzhugh led her daughter on for several more minutes before she spoke again. “We are far enough away from the house if you wish to speak. Only I will hear.”
Ellanor stared hard at the small stones in the cart track. “There ’s nothing to say,” she said.
At the end of the lane Mistress Fitzhugh led her daughter over a stile and into a horse pasture. She walked up a short hill to a large boulder and sat down. From here she could see the old manor house once owned by the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Smoke drifted from the chimneys, a reminder that the nights were still cool. She patted the bare rock next to her. “Come, Ellanor. Sit down.”
Birds warbled and trilled. Insects hummed in the warm air. Leaves rustled softly.
Ellanor sat beside her mother. She studied the flower in her hand. “Mother, I don’t want to be married.”
“So your father spoke to you about going to London?”
Ellanor nodded. “Under the oak trees the day we rode to see the new pond.”
“You don’t want to go?”
Ellanor wiped some tears away on the back of her hand. “Part of me wants to go.”
Her mother handed her a handkerchief. “But not all of you?”
Ellanor nodded and wiped her eyes with the handkerchief.
“What part of you wants to go?”
“Well, there’s the palaces and the lords and ladies. Oh, and all the shops. I can’t imagine what they must be like. And parties, I’d like the parties.”
Mistress Fitzhugh nodded. “Yes, it’s all quite grand. Your father and I visited the City some years ago. We had a wonderful time.” Her mother shifted her seat so she could look out over the pastures behind the manor house. “ Can you tell me what part of you doesn’t want to go?”
Ellanor’s sigh was long. “All I can think about is that father is sending me away to be married.”
“That is a hard thought.”
“It is,” said Ellanor. Her shoulders sagged, and she bowed her head. “I feel as though he cares more about a title than about me.”
Mistress Fitzhugh pulled her daughter close. “You are much more than a title to your father.”
“It doesn’t feel like it.”
“When your father and I were young, we saved every farthing to invest in a voyage undertaken by a merchant from London. Heaven be thanked, he was an honest man, and the voyage was profitable. You were about five then. Remember when we spent an afternoon walking over the fields your father purchased with the profits?”
Ellanor nodded. “We ate under a big tree.”
Mistress Fitzhugh nodded. “That was a wonderful day for your father. My wonderful days began when the men came to rethatch the roof, put new glazing in the windows, and fix the chimney. Seven years we lived with that leaky roof and wind whistling through cracked windows.”
Ellanor nodded again.
“He did this all for his family.”
“I know, but if Father wants a title, why doesn’t he buy one? Why does he have to use me?”
“He could purchase a title, but he wants more than a baronetcy. And, my dear, your father isn’t using you. I think he doesn’t understand why you don’t wish to serve our family as he has all his life.”
Ellanor blew her nose. “I do want to help. I want to do what he asks, but how can I obey—”
“Ellanor, this isn’t a matter of obedience. Your father has asked you, given you a choice. Something most young women never have.”
“It’s a horrible choice. If I stay here, Father will always be disappointed, and I’ll know I’m the cause. If I go to London, Father will be happy, but I won’t be.”
“Why, my dear, you may enjoy living with Lady Wilthrop and learning all she has to teach you.”
Ellanor gulped and took a shaky breath. “I don’t want to be married.”
A smile brushed Mistress Fitzhugh’s lips. “You may change your mind one day.”
“And I’ll be gone so long. Father said I would be in London all winter.”
Mistress Fitzhugh sat quietly for some time before she answered. “You would leave Bishop’s Manor for a year or two at least.”
“A year or two?” Ellanor pulled back from her mother. She dropped the wilted flower and thought that she felt a lot like its bruised petals. “A year is a long time,” she said.
“Yes, a very long time.”
Ellanor stood and turned slowly to see all of Bishop’s Manor she could. Her father’s lands went as far as she could see.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Mistress Fitzhugh asked.
Ellanor said nothing.
“Someday,” her mother spoke softly, “it will be yours, all of it.”
Ellanor turned slowly to face her mother.
“With Paul gone . . .” Her mother’s voice faded. “Yes, yours . . . to make of it what you will.”
Ellanor climbed on the rock as if to see for the first time the only home she had known. Mine, she thought. Aloud she said, “It is beautiful.” For the first time Ellanor realized that she was an important part of the future of the Fitzhugh family. I can do something that no one else, not even Father, can do. The thought surprised her. The flower lay forgotten. “Could I come home sometimes?” she asked her mother.
“You’ve decided, then?”
Ellanor jumped from the rock. “I’ll go.”
“And marriage?” asked her mother.
“Yes.” Ellanor drew the word out. “But, not for one or two years at least.”
Mistress Fitzhugh smiled and nodded. She pulled her daughter’s hand through the crook of her elbow. “Let’s go home and tidy ourselves before your father returns.”