In Which December Proves the Cruellest Month
Two lonely figures, muffled and wrapped against the cold, shuffled through the snow-covered streets of the unfamiliar city of Harrogate. A mother and her young son, they were newly arrived, having travelled by night coach from London. “Stand up straight and tall,” the mother advised. “Mind your manners as I showed you.” She glanced down at him doubtfully. “Will you do that? Promise me.”
The boy nodded, his small face pinched tight against the cold.
“You will be a gentleman soon,” she added, softening her tone. “Think of that.”
“What if I don’t like him?” the little boy wanted to know.
“Of course you will like him,” she chided. “Anyway, he is your father. It doesn’t matter if you like him or not.”
“Because he’s your father, that’s why,” she told him in a tone that let him know there were to be no more questions about it.
They walked on. The early-morning streets were still dark. In the frozen depths of December, light came late to northern towns. Beneath a flickering streetlamp, they paused to rest a little and warm themselves by stamping their feet and blowing on their bare hands. A few paces up from where they stood, a baker unlocked his door, stepped out in his flour-dusted apron, and proceeded to take down the shutters covering the windows of his shop. The aroma of fresh bread wafted out into the street on a gush of warm air.
“I’m hungry,” piped the little boy, his eyes wide as he gazed at the bakery.
“We will eat soon,” advised his mother. “Your father will give us a nice meal. I expect he has all kinds of good things to eat, for he is a fine gentleman and lives in a great house with butlers and maids and footmen and a carriage and horses.” Taking his small cold hand in hers, she pulled him along past the bakery. “Come along, Archie. We best move on before we get too cold.”
They slogged on through the slush-filled streets of the town. It had been a long and sleepless journey in a cold and uncomfortable coach, and she had used almost all of her meagre funds to purchase the tickets that had brought them this far. There was nothing left over for niceties like a cab or necessities like hot rolls. To keep her young son’s mind off the hunger and cold, his mother told him stories about his father and the mansion he would soon enjoy as part of his birthright.
Eventually they left the High Street and entered a broad avenue lined with large redbrick houses. Here they stopped to rest again. “I’m tired,” complained the boy.
“It is just a little farther,” said his mother. “We are almost there.” She pointed to a large, grey stone house at the far end of the street; three stories tall, sprawling with out-flung wings to the right and left, and surrounded by a high iron fence, it stood in impressive solitude amidst an expanse of gardens at the end of a grand, sweeping drive. “See, Archie? That is his house. It is called Kettering House, and it is very fine indeed.”
She had been there only twice, but knew the place well. The first time she had come was as an uninvited guest to a summer party on the lawn. The occasion had been the birthday of a prominent minor royal and peer of the realm, and she, newly arrived from London to visit her best friend, had simply tagged along. “Do come, Gem,” her friend had urged. “It will be such fun. There will be ever so many people-no one will even know you’re there, and Vernon Ashmole is the most handsome man you’ve ever seen.”
Egged on, she overcame her innate reluctance, and the two young women went along together. And while it did seem that half the town turned out to help celebrate this illustrious citizen’s birthday, someone did notice that she was there: only a few minutes after slipping into a garden festooned with Chinese lanterns and red silk bunting, the pretty young women attracted the intense interest of His Lordship’s son.
A glass of wine in his hand and a knowing smirk on his well-featured face, he stared at the two young ladies with the predatory gaze of a lean and hungry wolf, and then, downing his wine in a gulp, tossed aside the glass and strode to where they stood half-hidden inside a rose trellis. “How is it,” he began, looking directly at Gem, “that I know everyone here, but I don’t know you?”
“Oh, Vernon! I didn’t see you sneaking up on us,” gasped her friend.
“Nonsense, Juliana,” replied the heir apparent, never taking his eyes off the strange interloper. “Now tell me, who is this ravishing creature?”
“This is my dearest friend, Gemma Burley,” said Juliana, somewhat taken aback by the young man’s interest in her friend. “She’s come up from London for a few weeks, visiting. I asked her to join me, as I didn’t want to come alone. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Oh, but I’m afraid I do mind-terribly,” he protested. “It is a very grave infraction of the fearfully strict Ashmolean Code of Social Conduct, my dears. You simply cannot come barging into one of Lord Ashmole’s festive celebrations unbidden. There are dire consequences, you see.”
Juliana laughed. “Pay him no mind, Gem,” she said, putting her flame-red head near Gemma’s own dark curls. “He’s joking.”
“I never joke about such things,” he insisted. “There are penalties.”
“What, pray tell, are the penalties,” laughed Juliana with forced gaiety, “for such a grave social infraction?”
Gemma smiled nervously, uncertain how to take this bold fellow. Whatever else he was, Juliana was right: Vernon Ashmole was a most handsome young man.
“You must dance every dance with me,” said Vernon with a wink. “A punishment all out of proportion to the crime, but there you are.” Reaching for Gemma’s hand, he coaxed her from the flimsy shelter of the arbour and out onto the lawn where tables had been set up with food and drink, and a wooden floor had been laid over the grass. A string ensemble was playing a Strauss waltz, and Gemma was pulled into the gracefully spinning wheel of dancers.
The rest of the night passed in a giddy whirl of music, wine, and laughter. Vernon proved an engaging and attentive companion, and before the long summer evening was over, Gemma Burley was well and truly smitten. The blossoming love affair was too much for Juliana, who ended their friendship that very night. Even so, four years later, Gemma’s most cherished memory was of that one magical evening when His Lordship’s son had danced with only her.
The second time she had been inside the door of Kettering House she preferred not to think about. It was after she had been driven from the family home by her father, who could not face the ignominy of an unmarried pregnant daughter. Vernon had brought her home to announce their matrimonial intentions to his own father. The resulting scene was so harrowing Gemma refused to dwell on it-relegating the unhappy memory to the outer darkness, along with the regret, recrimination, and disappointment of the last four years.
But now, this day, a new future lay before them. The misery and unhappiness of their plight was over. When Vernon saw them standing there on his doorstep he would instantly realise the difficulty his tardiness had caused; he would embrace them and welcome them into his home- their home-and they would assume their rightful place in his affections. For there was no question that Vernon loved her. There had never been any question of that-she had letters, bundles of letters, to prove it: letters in which he vowed his undying adoration and devotion to her. She had other letters he had written promising that they would be married as soon as it became possible; and whenever he came to London on business, Vernon made time to visit her-at first in the Magdalene Home, and then at the flat he rented for them in Bethnal Green. He sent them money too.
They would have been married long since, but for the angry objection of Vernon’s father, the old Lord Archibald Ashmole, who took violent exception to what he considered his wastrel son’s illicit dalliance and threatened to disinherit Vernon if he so much as looked at Gemma again. Nothing would do for the old lord but that his son should marry a woman from an aristocratic northern tribe-especially one whose family held extensive industrial assets in mining, say, or shipping-definitely not some southern slattern from the wrong side of the Thames. Needless to say, the old lord knew nothing about the letters, the visits, or the flat.
And then, against any such expectation, the elder Ashmole had dropped dead-hustled off the world’s stage by a virulent case of the Spanish influenza that had scourged the nation last year. It had taken a few months for the dust to settle, but Vernon had come into his full inheritance and was now firmly installed as Lord Ashmole, taking his place in the family pantheon of patriarchs. Moreover, he was free to marry as he wished. There was nothing now to prevent Gemma and her son-their son-from joining him at last and becoming the family they were always meant to be.
She had waited, thinking any day that he would come for them. A month went by, and then another. The money stopped. Gemma wrote letters. They were unanswered. Two more months passed and finally, at the end of her resources, she had decided to come to him.
Stepping boldly to the door, she passed a motherly eye over the small boy beside her, licked her thumb and rubbed a smudge from his little chin. “There, that’s better. Stand up straight and tall. Be a big boy now,” she told him. Then, her hand shaking, Gemma took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
She waited a moment and knocked again. There came a click from the other side, and the great mahogany door swung open. A servant in a black coat gazed imperiously at them. “Yes?” he said, his manner implying the opposite.
“If you please, Melton,” she said. “It’s me, Gemma Burley. I’ve come to see Vernon.”
“Forgive me, madam,” intoned the servant. “I did not recognise you.” He opened the door to allow them entry. “If you don’t mind waiting here,” he said, “I will see if His Lordship is receiving.”
“We’re expected,” Gemma declared.
“Of course, madam.”
The two were left to stand in the vestibule. “Was that my papa?” asked the boy when the servant had gone.
“No, my sweet, that was one of your father’s servants. He has many servants. You’ll have to learn all their names, I expect.”
“I’m tired,” said the boy. “I want to sit down.”
“Not just yet,” said his mother. “In a little bit, we’ll all sit down together. Won’t that be fine?”
“We’ll have something good to eat very, very soon. I promise.”
They waited, the little boy fidgeting until they heard the sound of quick footsteps approaching. “Here he comes, Archie. Smile and shake hands as I showed you.”
“Gemma!” Vernon cried, almost bounding towards them. “What in heaven’s name are you doing here?”
“Hello, Vernon,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady as relief coursed through her like a rare tonic. They had surprised him, to be sure. He was still in his silk dressing gown with his shirt collar open. “I wrote to tell you we were coming. Didn’t you get my letter?”
“No, my dear. I received no such communication.”
She studied his face and did not like what she saw there. “Aren’t you glad to see us?”
“Us?” he said distractedly.
“Archie and me,” she told him. “We simply could not wait any longer.”
The dark-haired handsome man glanced down at the small round face peeking out from behind his mother’s skirts.
“How do you do?” said Archie, extending a small hand.
“Hello, Archibald, you have grown a bit,” replied Vernon, bending to grasp the hand. He held it for a moment, then released it. “You should not have come,” he said, rising once more to address the mother.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s awkward. I can explain.”
“But I thought-that is, now that your father has passed-you said-”
“I know what I said,” he growled. “I said a lot of things. We all say things, you know, that… Well, never mind. What is to be done about it now?” Glancing down, he gave the boy a thin smile. “We must find a way to get you home again.”
“Vernon,” gasped Gemma, “what are you saying? We’ve left London for good. We’ve come here to be with you, to live with you.”
“I’m afraid that is not possible,” replied the lord stiffly. “Things have changed. My circumstances have changed. I think it would be best if you were to take a room at the hotel near the station, and I will come to you later and explain.”
“A hotel!” Gemma could not help shrieking the word. “What has happened? What has changed? You said we would be married. You promised.”
Lord Ashmole became stiffly officious. “Now, listen to me. Take a room. I will come to you later, and we’ll talk this over.” He turned and summoned Melton to attend him. “The lady and her son are leaving,” he informed the valet. “Send for a cab to take them to the hotel.”
“Of course, sir.”
“Don’t bother,” snapped Gemma Burley. “We’ll find our own way.”
She spun on her heel and marched to the door, almost yanking the little boy with her. Outside, she paused to gather her wits, and little Archie, bewildered and frightened about what had just taken place, began to cry. His mother picked him up and, holding him close for comfort and warmth, murmured to him, “There, now. It’s going to be all right. There has been some mistake, is all. I’m sure everything is going to be all right.”
She was still standing there when the door opened again. Vernon, in slippers, stepped out, his dressing gown billowing behind him as he ran. At first she imagined he had come to confess that it was all a dreadful misunderstanding, that he had repented of his folly and would now make it right. Then she saw the wallet in his hand.
“I simply cannot bear to see you leave like this,” he said. “Here, take this.” He shoved the leather pouch at her. “Please.”
“Vernon,” she said, her voice trembling, “why?”
“I can’t… I’m sorry, Gem,” he replied. “I meant to tell you. I tried…” He thrust the wallet into the crook of her arm where she held their whimpering child. “It is all I have at the moment. Take it.”
“I don’t want your money.”
“I can’t give you anything else. I’m sorry.” He took a step backwards, already distancing himself from them.
“But why, Vernon? You loved me once. We could have been happy. We can still be happy together.”
“It’s over, Gem. We come from such different worlds.” He spoke as if the words had been rehearsed until all meaning had leached from them. “My father was right. It would never have worked out between us. Surely you can see that.”
There was no reply she could make to that rejection. He turned and, without another word, stepped back inside and closed the door on them. Gemma, stunned, simply stood in the cold and gazed at the tightly shut door. As she turned to leave, she caught a reflection in the bay window overlooking the porch and realised she could see into the room-the morning room. Inside, seated at a table spread for breakfast, was a young lady she recognised. “Juliana!” she gasped, her empty stomach turning over.
As she watched, Vernon entered the room and, pausing to kiss his new bride, resumed his seat at the table. Gemma felt the earth shift beneath her feet as her world crumbled around her. Juliana, in a silk dressing gown, buttered her toast as if nothing had happened.
Gemma had seen enough. Struggling to keep her head high, she started down the long drive, placing one foot in front of the other as if it somehow mattered now that her life was over. Stunned and confused, her mind numb with shock, she paused at the great iron gates at the entrance and glanced back over her shoulder for one last glimpse of what might have been.
A little later, she came to herself once more. They were in the town and people were passing them in the street. “I’m hungry,” whined Archie, tugging on her sleeve. “Mummy, I’m hungry.”
“We’ll get something to eat now,” she said, gathering her thin coat around her. She looked at Vernon’s wallet in her hand and opened it. Inside were three ten-pound notes. “Thirty pieces of silver,” she said absently, staring at the money.
She stirred herself then, taking the young boy’s hand. “Come along, my sweet one. Let’s go find that bakery.”