Welcome to the part four of our special March Mashup! Plans are afoot for the silver-haired George Wickham and his silk-clad wife to visit Margaret Thornton in her new marital home.
Read on to learn of perfume, scandal and Mrs Wickham’s hard-won battle with her ornamental feathers. If you would like to catch up with the correspondence, links can be found at the bottom of the page to all preceding parts.
–Catherine Curzon and Nicole Clarkston
My dear Maharani,
Upon receipt of your delightfully fragranced letter, I wondered at what exotic princess in distress might be writing to seek my counsel. After all, what delicate spices and subtle aromas might be found in drear old England, surely, said I, this correspondence has travelled a great many leagues to reach my door.
Imagine my surprise and delight then, upon eagerly breaking the seal, to discover the contents came not from the mysterious east, but from my dear friend, the Empress of Milton. I do jest of course, for that exotic scent can only have come from my dear wife and, since she is currently trotting earnestly in the garden with our youngest daughter, I correctly surmised that you had indeed received her large and fragrant parcel. That scent, as your entire circle is now learning, will be with you from now until doomsday. Indeed, one might venture to suggest that, come a century far distant from today, Milton will still carry a certain fragrant bouquet that is forever Lydia.
You are correct to wager that we would not dream of accepting any recompense for our gifts but Mrs Wickham is most heartily grateful for those examples of the treasures created by your proteges. I believe they are destined to take up residence in my dear wife’s boudoir, and she has enclosed here a sealed note for you. Mrs Wickham has not, as she will be first to admit, been gifted with an instinct for needle point amongst her many and varied other talents, though she persists in attempting to improve her efforts even in her dotage. If I might share a secret with you, I confess that many’s the occasion on which I have professed a great and sometimes rather theatrical cry of enthusiasm at her latest efforts when presented with a lace piece that might have been woven by a spider who had been swimming knee deep in brandy. There is a certain continental absurdity to her lacework that one half suspects Lydia has rather embraced, for surely decades of practice would otherwise have resulted in some small measure of improvement. Yet needlework gives my dear wife much pleasure and appreciating her efforts affords me much humour, so we find ourselves in happy concert.
My felicitations and, of course, apologies, to your erstwhile mother-in-law, do assure her that I meant no blemish on her son’s good character. There is, of course an element of teasing in my apology that I know you will not share with that esteemed lady for her son is indeed a pup, as all men are before the women who hold their hearts dear. A callous is only skin deep, after all; beneath it flows the same red blood as any man!
Now, let me delve deep into my own great accumulation of years and a lifetime of experience that has not always been happy to address this matter of rosebuds and sunshine. In truth, what makes a rosebud bloom but a little rainfall? Without the occasional hearty shower, what would we have but a drought, a desert where no flower would blossom? So let us state here and now that any married couple who claim sunshine, roses and smiles on all their days must surely be telling an untruth. Or, worse still, might one persist in the belief that all is heavenly when their spouse toils unhappily, their dissatisfaction unnoticed? Let that rain fall, say I, for what pleasure might one take in a dance in that rain as the sun shines through, and what better to bring out those blooms than a shower?
I believe that your similar temperaments must surely make for a good match. Lydia and I are likewise of a well-matched outlook; given, some might say, to flamboyance and in our younger years, to a certain amount of selfish pig-headedness. Time was that we must both have the last word on every matter and my goodness, how those fires would flare and how sweet the reconciliation that followed. My dear wife to this day must enjoy the final pronouncement on many matters whereas I, as all soldiers do, have learned that some battles are easier to retreat from. So it is that we co-exist harmoniously, as Lydia says it must be one way and I agree, only to make it the other. So it is that we enjoy our sport and silliness, and I would change naught!
In your words I see only the bright glow of love for your husband, and might I be so bold as to say it was evident in every glance, every word exchanged at your wedding? I believe that there can be few better foundations for a marriage than adversity like that which you mention, for what brings us together more than a shared challenge? When Lydia and I were married, in truth many dark words were muttered regarding our union, as you are already aware, yet we have prevailed and endured! You shall shoulder the shared burden admirably and it will make you stronger for its weight, and what days you will know in the years to come!
Mrs Wickham and I would be humbled to make our own contribution to your laudable philanthropic plan, and to this end have enclosed a monetary sum herein that I trust will prove useful in driving your enterprise onwards. I believe that Milton will be vastly improved in all manner of ways for having you at the heart of its court, even if it will be pervaded by Lydia’s perfume from now until the end of time.
Now, onto the matter of pink and yellow. They are not, I confess, my own colours of choice but Lydia will have her heathen-scented way, will she not? I must tell you, my dear girl, that I could not contain my humour upon reading the portion of your letter regarding your adventures at the hands of my wife’s perfumed cushions. It is with no small delight that I read of the manner in which Lydia’s fragrant influence is slowly creeping over the whole of the town, bringing a little touch of Indian spice to the mills of Milton. “Master’s Long Dinner Break” shall long bring a tear of mirth to my eye; it seems that my wife has inadvertently made dandies of the gentlemen of industry from afar!
I should, however, provide ample warning that Mrs Wickham, once engaged on the matter of fragrance, is not easily dissuaded. I must also apologise in advance for what other fragrant items she may choose to send your way, for even the smallest note or most meagre offering does not leave this house without first being liberally perfumed. I rather fancy that I have become immune to it myself, whilst no doubt parading a cloud of heady fragrance of which I am entirely unaware. What, one wonders now, is the impression one had been giving to all those one has encountered in the past!
I shall close in sharing my wife and family’s great regards with you. Happily our gathering passed without great incident and with much merriment, though our planned musical party on the second evening was somewhat commandeered by the vocal efforts of our granddaughters, who rather fancy themselves the future of English opera. Perhaps a little more tutoring might be required before they assume the stage, but I confess I heard only the sweetest voices, having wisely benefitted from a fine port beforehand.
And so to business and for this old soldier, that means a visit to the races to watch the progression of my newest acquisition. A fine chestnut, to be sure, but whether fine enough to clear the post in first, we shall see.
With fondest regards from the perfumed palace of Highgate,
My Dear Friend,
You astonish me with your generosity! I would never have importuned you, nor imposed upon our friendship had you not urged me so, and I confess that even that last letter was sent with some degree of trepidation. Your gift has humbled the wealthiest families in Milton- more on that point in a moment. Firstly, I must share with you all that you have done. You must know that land here in Milton is most dear, as every square inch of real estate is crowded with industry. We had not anticipated enough support to consider purchasing any sort of property, but my dear godfather Mr Bell had left to me some lots near the centre of town. One, in particular, had captured my fancy as a potential location for a school, but the building on the site was an old dyeing factory- wholly unsuited to our purposes, and sadly outdated for its own.
I had, naturally, to consult with my husband first, as the property legally became his concern upon our marriage. It would perhaps have been to Marlborough Mills’ advantage to renovate that dyeing plant and thus market some of our finished cotton, but my John would not hear of it. “Build your school,” he urged me. However, such an endeavour was beyond our means. My dear friend, you have made it now a possibility. Where before we imagined a simple brick building of two or three classrooms, now we are beginning to draw up plans for our own miniature Oxford- right here, in Milton! It is to have a library, a chapel, a nurse’s office where the children may receive medical care, a courtyard for play, and at least twelve school rooms.
Where, one might ask, would we obtain the resources to support the necessary staff for such an institution? Why, my friend, you have supplied that yourself. We have waxed eloquent upon the subject of Mrs Wickham’s perfumes, so it ought to come as no surprise to you when I state that your notes were all heavily scented when I delivered them to the board members. One or two of our more conservative members waved their handkerchiefs and cried that the money had been ill-gotten and bore the stain of sin or the devil’s bane, or some other such nonsense. However, you might imagine by now that not a few of Milton’s more influential men of business have come away from our house bearing that same curious fragrance- which, as you have warned me, has the power to linger until I think death itself shall be my only escape.
John helped very little at the beginning, for I think he found it monstrously amusing when Mr Hamper attempted to call upon Miss Evans just after visiting our house, and was turned away rather harshly for his indiscreet aroma. He did come round and offer a respectable confession to all and sundry, however, when Mr Hamper’s face the following day reminded John of his own despair in those dark days of our early acquaintance. Not only has Miss Evans accepted Mr Hamper once more into her good graces (did I not tell you to expect this, my friend?) but all Milton’s manufacturers know to avoid our leather sofa if they do not wish to burn their clothing afterward.
That point aside, it was rather obvious as to the source of the funds I presented. There is a Northern pride which fuels this fair city, making keen businessmen rise from the ashes of insignificance, but the generations rising after those men of industry have suffered somewhat. Duchesses are born of dustmen’s daughters, princes of the sons of coal miners. I applaud the leveled field of opportunity of the first generation, but I abhor the secure arrogance of the second. It is, however, that very arrogance which has brought in the remainder of the pledges we required. When it was learned abroad that a humble former military officer and his southern-born bride had supplied the necessary funds to raise our building, they would not be out-done. John rather stoked their pride on this point, I think, for he came home from not a few masters’ dinners chuckling to himself at the nuggets of harassment he dropped upon the ears of his fellow masters.
My good friend, I beseech you to come and see what you have done for this city. It was my insistence that our school be not only a practical, modern institution of learning, but also a picture of as much elegance as might be breathed into the hearts of young souls in this city. Already we have plans for a small garden of sorts in the front of the building, and the building itself shall be no common brick face as most we see here. We intend to break ground next month, if all goes as planned, and it would honour us greatly if you and Mrs Wickham might grace us with your presence upon that occasion. I would not deny you the opportunity to see for yourself the hope on the faces of our young, nor would I wish for Mrs Wickham to miss basking in her infamy here- for as I think I have made abundantly clear, her name has spread through the city on the wings of the laundress’ lines, and many here are most curious to make her acquaintance.
I apologise for the brevity of this note, but I so desired to write back to you promptly. There is much to be done, and as my time of influence shall be limited to only two or three more months, I wish to accomplish all that I possibly may. Ah, my dear friend, there is yet another bit of news I would share with you and your charming wife, but I shall save that more private information for your visit.
I believe I shall style myself The Empress of Oxford,
Your Imperial Majesty,
A miniature Oxford indeed!
Why, when I read this portion of your letter to Lydia she was most impressed and, I must confess, somewhat boastful when discussing the matter with her circle. Such is my wife, I am afraid, she does so adore to spread news of her own good deeds and though I should, I know, chide her for her lack of humility, one finds oneself too amused to feel anything less than affection. I warn, however, that Mrs Wickham threatens to make a trip to view the finished establishment and to honour your pupils with her presence and perfume.
For my own part, I merely carry my private happiness at the happy news of your letter. In truth I did not make the best of the education that was offered to me and resented every moment spent in the classroom. Why, wondered I, was a lad made for the outdoors being prevailed upon to sit behind a desk, breathing stuffy air and learning by rote the most unnecessary minutiae of times long since passed? What did a boy like young George care for matters of Rome or Greece, let alone the theories of philosophy and theology in which the masters sought to educate me? Far better that I be out on the gallops, fishing for tadpoles in the stream or trying to coax a smile from the village girls, for surely that would make me into a man with far more haste than any stultifying old tome!
How fatherhood changes one, of course; for when my own sons dared to battle against their own education, I proved myself a patrician indeed and into the schoolroom they were marched. It is only with hindsight, I think, that one is fully able to recognise the import of such matters, of course, and my boys in turn have faced that same struggle with their own offspring. I cannot help but surmise that it is not in the Wickham blood to enjoy lessons, but I am sure that those pupils who will be educated in your own school will prove far more diligent and keen students – they could scarcely be less so!
And all carrying the fragrance of Lydia’s perfume, I should not wonder. I now find myself considering the matter that perhaps I too carry that most particular scent and have merely, over the long years of our marriage, grown entirely used to the bouquet. Perhaps I am the most fragrant man in the south and if so, that can hardly assist the infamy that accompanies my name amid those of a certain age. I must confess that it rather pleases me if that is so, for an old soldier like me, by now considered aged and white-haired enough to be respectable, might take some considerable amusement from the hint of a little intrigue beneath his grandfatherly exterior.
Thrice huzzah for the happy news of Mr Hamper and Miss Evans, but that Milton’s Romeo and Juliet were almost undone by my dear wife’s indulgences. Thank goodness that the lady in question was charitable enough to believe that something so innocent as a sofa could be the channel of such mischief. And make no mistake, that scent has caused mischief many a time as Lydia has undertaken her travels.
Alas, would that I could claim it were the devil’s bane or the very wages of sin that provided the money for my charitable donation and my wife’s cosmetics, but I am afraid that the truth is far more mundane. Should anyone ask in the future, however, let us tell them that my military years were naught but subterfuge and I was in reality sailing the seven seas beneath my own skull and crossbones, helping myself to a king’s ransom and more besides. When that tale becomes old and worn, we shall spin yarns of my adventures in the exotic east, of runaway princesses and evil maharajas, and matters for more scandalous and thrilling than any truth could ever be. Let us not tell them the truth of matters military and business, of good livestock and good fortune, for that is not the stuff that novels are made of!
I believe, having read of the manner in which northern pride was so ably stoked in order to fill the coffers to bursting, that you are indeed a couple to be reckoned with. Invoke my name all you might wish in the future, my dear, and let us see the vaults bulge with coin; there is not a businessman alive who cannot afford to have his pride pricked with the needle of philanthropy now and again, after all.
Mrs Wickham and I would be honoured to join you as you break ground in this most important endeavour. Indeed, I believe Lydia is packing her finest frills as I write, for she is most keen to meet her newly-acquired admirers, as one might politely term them. The promise of more private news cheers this old heart greatly already, and it is with great expectation that I shall receive it in person.
With fondest regards from the deck of the good ship Wickham,
Dear Mr Wickham,
I fear the receipt of your most recent letter has been delayed by my own travels. My dear John surprised me with a few days at Portsmouth, and such glorious holidays we had! Who would have thought that John Thornton of Marlborough Mills would spend four straight mornings lingering over a breakfast tray in his private chambers? We took in few of the sights, but the time of rest has replenished our souls and I am grateful for my husband’s thoughtfulness.
I fear this note may not even arrive before you and Mrs Wickham will have departed to come to us, but I felt I must make the attempt, if for no other reason to assure Mrs Wickham that we have aired out our finest guest room and festooned it with such adornments as may be found in this Spartan old house. I am certain that Mrs Wickham will bring her comfort wherever she travels, but I wish for her to feel at home the moment her foot crosses the threshold.
We eagerly await your arrival, but I fear I must post this now if it is to have any hope of reaching you before I have the blessing of seeing you once more in person.
My dearest friend,
Happily, your letter arrived just as our departure was delayed by Lydia’s decision to change her gown for the journey, sure that a daffodil yellow was far more suited to the road than what she assures me a dusky pink. As I hear my wife fluttering and fretting above, I have taken a moment to pen a response, safe in the knowledge that I would likely have ample time in which to write a novel of three volumes, such is Lydia’s attention to her dress.
I believe that Mr Thornton has been swift to learn the benefits and pleasures of the gentlemanly life and rightly so; what can a fellow ask for, after all, if not four mornings spent lingering over breakfast? Promenading and social engagements have their place, but what is a holiday if not a time of rest, for both husband and wife alike? It has been many a long year since I have visited Portsmouth, but I believe you have given me a taste for it; perhaps I should mention it to my dear lady…
Alas, I am summoned to lend my opinion on lengths of decorative feathers and must, therefore, close here. Thank you for your consideration of Lydia’s comfort; you are quite correct to guess that she will be bringing her home comforts and, I understand, a brace of gifts for you and your fortunate husband. I should warn you now, each and every one is likely to be fragranced more heavily than the last.
To the feathers and thence, happily, to your magnificent court and company,
…To be continued….
And to view the previous installments, click here!