How will Fitzwilliam fare as the reign of the Queen of Rosings Park comes to an end?
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Fitzwilliam navigated the narrow, steep servant’s stairway. Stray beams of light peeked through odd openings in the walls. Dust motes twinkled in the beams. Cobwebs dangled from the walls, reaching for him as he passed. Did the servants not clean these passages? Probably not—who would have noticed or cared until now?
The dark passage had been fun to explore as a child. How often he and Darcy had startled servants as they scurried on their errands, thinking themselves sequestered from the family? Their startled looks had been mightily entertaining, then.
Now, they were irritating.
Irritating and embarrassing.
The master of a home should not be hiding like a rat in the walls, avoiding a cat—or in his case, a mad dowager. Yet that was exactly what he was doing.
He had faced cannon fire and sabers, taken a musket ball to the shoulder and another to the thigh, stood against Napoleon and lived to tell of it. Never once had he hidden or run. But Lady Catherine—she had him scurrying into dark corners like despicable vermin.
Had she been with Napoleon, he would have won.
No wonder they had run out of port last month. Now the stores of brandy were growing low as well. If things did not change soon, he would have to turn to whisky. There was still plenty of that in the cellars.
He shouldered open the door to his office, but it resisted. There, just enough to slip through. He stumbled and tripped, catching himself on the chair stacked with ledgers he had left just in front of it yesterday. Too damn drunk to remember to leave his own escape route clear.
Bloody hell, how had it come to this? He scrubbed his face with his hands. Drink had always been a pleasure, never a necessity. When had that changed?
Yes, the unexpected inheritance was astonishing, and he was grateful. Finally he was a proper gentleman in the eyes of society with an estate and connections that would make him welcome in nearly any society.
But it was also ruining him.
Darcy was right, he knew nothing about managing an estate, much less one in the condition of Rosings.
Thank God for Michaels.
While the steward left him feeling like an incompetent often enough, he had the good manners—and good sense—never to point out Fitzwilliam’s shortcomings.. There was a great deal to be said for a bit of discretion.
The new butler—blast it all, what was his name? Dash it all, he would be Tom from here on out. Small Tom, as he bore little resemblance to Long Tom whom he replaced. Yes, that would work—entered. “Sir, Mr. Michaels has arrived from London, are you at home to him?”
“Am I at home? What does it look like? I am drowning in a sea of documents and in need of a man who can swim. Damn it yes, I am at home.”
Small Tom bowed and shuffled off.
A moment later, Michaels strode in, a portfolio under one arm and road dust on his coat.
Fitzwilliam straightened his coat and sat behind his desk. “So you have wasted no time in coming to me. Have not even changed your clothes. I knew there was a reason I liked you, Michaels.”
“I am glad to have pleased you, sir.” Michaels navigated around the piles of books and other gathered debris in the study and pulled a chair close to Fitzwilliam’s desk.
“What news have you for me? It had best not be all bad, or I shall surely run mad with my aunt. Wait, wait, shall I retrieve the brandy before or after you open that portfolio of disaster you keep always by your side.” He laughed, mostly to control his nerves.
“The news is mixed, sir, but I would suggest that the brandy be delayed in any case. These are matters best approached with a clear head.”
“You mean a clear headache.” Fitzwilliam stepped around a chair loaded with papers and retrieved the brandy decanter.
He turned and came eye to eye with Michaels’ stern gaze. Michael’s slowly reached for the decanter. Fitzwilliam clutched it harder.
“Sir, pray do not make this more difficult than necessary.”
They locked eyes, but Michaels would not back down.
Fitzwilliam released the crystal into Michaels’ steady hand. He stalked back to his desk and fell into his chair. He raked his hair with both hands. “So then if you are going to deny me liquid comfort, give me news to comfort me.”
Michaels set the decanter aside and sat down. He pulled paper and folios from his bag. Dear God, how much could such a small bag hold?
“To sum it up, I know you prefer to hear that first, I have negotiated with all the creditors I have uncovered. Needless to say they are unhappy, but they understand they will more likely to be paid back if no one ends up in debtor’s prison.”
Aunt Catherine would probably prefer Bedlam to debtor’s prison in any case.
“To that end, I have drafted a plan to retrench. An extensive plan.” He tapped a folio on the desk. “I suggest we review that when you are fresh, perhaps in the morning. The plan is comprehensive and will require a vast array of changes to all aspects of life at Rosings.”
Fitzwilliam muttered under his breath. While change was not anathema to him, there were those living under his roof who were less amenable to it.
“Though it may be—challenging—for some time, I am confident that the plan will allow the debts to be repaid in the foreseeable future.”
“Foreseeable? Just how long is a ‘foreseeable’? It is not on a unit of time with which I am familiar.”
Thank God he had a sense of humor.
“The debts should be cleared in ten years. The heaviest burden of retrenching though is in the first three. Then there is another break after five and then after seven.” Michaels shoved a sheet of paper at him.
“So you say we will live like paupers on the streets begging for three years, then rent a room in a fourth rate town house after that?”
“If you wish sir. That would pay off your debts several years earlier. I can add that as an option if you so choose. I just began with the belief that you would prefer to have a roof over your head for the entire time of retrenchment.”
Fitzwilliam threw his head back and laughed. “Yes, indeed that probably is a better plan. I will discuss this with you in depth then tomorrow morning. But, I would prefer to meet in your home, not here.” Fitzwilliam glanced out of the door.
“Oh, I see. That will be acceptable. I shall inform my housekeeper. That does remind me, I did unfortunately discover a great deal more debt that none of us were aware of, owed to apothecaries and surgeons who tended to Miss de Bourgh before the advent of Dr. Bennet.”
“More debt? I thought you were to bring me good news.”
“The good news is that I have negotiated with them and their repayment is included in the plans of retrenching.”
“Do you think there is more that we do not know about?”
“It is always possible, but I do not think it likely.”
“I have been studying these suggestions that Darcy sent me. I would like your opinion. He says three crop rotation is antiquated and moving Rosings to a four crop system will dramatically increase our yields. He has also offered me a loan of one of Pemberley’s seed drills for the spring and a harvester in the autumn, and the horses to go with it.”
“As I understand it, Lady Catherine was loath to change what had always been done at Rosings. Mr. Darcy’s suggestions are quite sound. Moreover, if you are interested in modernizing the agriculture here, I attended several lectures whilst in London. I took notes and will leave them for you. If you opt to go forward with these ideas, the increase in income will be of great assistance in discharging the debts even sooner. I did make my estimates with the most conservative assumptions I could.”
“You are always such an optimist.”
“It is my experience, no one is disappointed when they have more than they expected.” Michaels cocked his head and flashed his eyebrows.
“Yes, yes, I know. It is wisdom and good practice and exactly why Darcy recommended you.” Fitzwilliam leaned back and huffed. “You will not object if I send your plan of retrenchment to Darcy to look over? He may be able to wring a few more shillings out, restricting me to bread and water or some such rot.”
“That is a punishment fit only for errant sailors, sir. As I understand, it is not for officers.”
“Indeed not. Carry on, then Michaels and I shall see you tomorrow.”
Michaels shoved more papers across the desk at him and strode out. He always walked so briskly, always so efficient. Did the man ever relax or enjoy himself?
Even his choice of bride was efficient. The plainest, hardest working of the Bennet sisters, she had little remarkable about her, save how unremarkable she was. Just the kind of wife for a man who specialized in retrenching estates and repaying debt.
Fitzwilliam returned to the brandy decanter and poured himself a large glass.
What kind of master of Rosings Park will Colonel Fitzwilliam make? Tell me in the comments.