Chapter One: Abingdon, Berkshire, England 1841
Young Lenore Brown was a sad, slope-shouldered slip of a girl. Her posture was perhaps her foremost physical feature. If she should depart the Brown Butcher Shop and step into the Ock Street to fetch vegetables down the way, Abingdonians recognized her right off by her downward gaze and those shoulders.
Lenore had good reason to be dreary, as they well knew. It was the way for most of their lot, and particularly for her. Life was about work. Toil from dawn to dusk. Lenore suffered particularly harsh days, for the older she had grown, the heavier grew her father’s demands. Five years theretofore, her mother, Martha, had passed on, still a young woman. She left a devastated family in the persons of her husband, William, and children Lenore, William, Ann, Mattie, Charles, James, and Harriett. Since that bleak day, Martha Brown’s legacy of household duties was placed heavily and increasingly onto the young shoulders of firstborn Lenore. Great gloom hung about the Browns’ dwelling behind the butcher shop. Did Martha’s ghost continue to hover, still sad from too hasty a leaving? Or did the misery emanate from Lenore, a live ghost whose aura found every corner of the dwelling?
There was no sin in the girl. No, it was more an insidious creeping, growing, sense, year by year, in her own mind and soul, that she was unworthy–perhaps even despicable. To put it simply, she was downtrodden. All of it: all the activity, the toil, the chat, and even the merciful sleep, took place in the dreariness of that motherless home. Never did Lenore give thought to the reasons for her sadness; she had no time for such an exercise. Yet, with no cheer about, how could one be happy. Further, there was the taunt. “Butcher Brown is a bastard! Butcher Brown is a bastard!”
Such a slap in the face it was. The insult appeared to be directed at Lenore’s father. Yet, the rascals always ensured that Butcher Brown was beyond earshot. They aimed their insults at his older children, who often could be seen at work in his butcher shop. The Brown family lived behind and above the shop, and the children heard the jibe frequently enough that they glanced constantly out into the street. If they saw the gang coming, they scurried out through the curtain at the back.
This day, Lenore sighted the cruel boys as a customer opened the shop door. There were no two ways about it. As much as her first inclination was to run, she must serve Mrs. Dench. “Butcher Brown is a bastard! Butcher Brown is a bastard!” came the cry.
“I shall have that roast of lamb, if you please, Miss Brown,” Mrs. Dench said.
Lenore dumped the lamb onto the scale, weighed it, and wrapped it in a second paper because the first piece tore. She tied the string tightly around the paper, nearly to the point of more tearing. The gracious Mrs. Dench did not react and paid for the meat. “Thank you, Miss Brown.”
“You are very welcome, Mrs. Dench,” Lenore said out of conditioned politeness more than anything else. Her customer left with a package looking like a small torso with a very thin waist.
The process had seemed to take an eternity. In a great hurry to remove herself, Lenore rinsed her hands quickly in a pan of water, dried them on her stained apron, removed the apron, and hung it on a hook at the end of the bare counter. The taunters had disappeared, but she was deeply humiliated that a customer had heard the accusation. The door closed behind Mrs. Dench, and Lenore rushed to the rear of the shop. She gagged as she went, affected by an odour which did not, as a rule, bother her. Rotting meat that had yet to be thrown out lay in an open bucket. Flies swarmed atop it.
She pushed through the heavy curtain that hung in the doorway and there took in a deep, more pleasant breath. In the living area, her five-year-old sister, Harriett, laid down a stack of materials and rushed to her with all the gladness a child might have, upon seeing her beloved older sister. That gladness became compassion when she noted Lenore’s distress. She pressed her little round face to Lenore’s belly and stretched her arms around her. “What is a bastard?”
Lenore rested her hands on Harriett’s small shoulders. She was waiting for her own body to calm. Harriett was wearing a frock made by Lenore. Neither fancy nor dyed, it nevertheless was of a cut and style worn usually by a child of a wealthier family.
“I loathe that word they use,” Lenore said. “Do not say it again.” They must push the incident out of their minds. There was work to be done. “Just fold,” she demanded. “Keep things tidy for me.” She pushed strands of her long brown hair back from the bodice of her frock. As if to tell even her clothing that it was time to get busy, she brushed bits of thread from the long sleeves and smoothed down the skirt of her pretty costume.
Lenore was clever with a sewing needle. Far from being prideful concerning her talent, the girl was thankful, for this gift was of great benefit in that motherless home. She could not stop herself from making fine garments. With remnants unneeded by her employer, Mr. Dalby, she clothed not only Harriett, ten-year-old Matilda, and her small brothers Charles and James, but herself as well. As few items of clothing as all five possessed, all were noticeably fashionable. This day, Lenore wore a dress of sepia shade. She wore it every day but Sunday. It was eye-catching, with its two collars, one wider than the other, one a deeper brown than the shade of the dress itself, and the other a deep blue. In Lenore’s mind, the collars provided sufficient though not extravagant colour. For a unified effect, she had added a bow to the bottom of the vee neckline, again using the natural material of the dress. Lest she be whispered about in town, she could never imagine creating for herself anything fancy . . . “I see Miss Brown thinks herself above her station. That young upstart should remember what her father is.”
Never would the family’s income have afforded features made from such expensive dyed materials. They were pieces left from clothing she had designed, cut, and sewn for Mr. Dalby, who sold frocks and waistcoats to retailers throughout county Berkshire.
“Please, sister, tell me. What is a–you know. Please!”
“Fold. Lenore wanted to be kind as well as stern. Spreading a length of garnet-dyed corduroy onto the cleared old table, she made an effort to explain. “A bastard has no father,” she said. “Fold, now, Harriett.”
Harriett proceeded to a pile of materials lying in a corner, on the slate floor. “Are we . . . you know, that word also, because we have no mother?”
Harriett gazed through the back window as if she hoped to see her mother there, seated in the elm tree. Even had a miracle placed Martha Brown in the tree, Harriett could not have recognized her, for the woman had died when Harriett was but a babe in arms.
“No. It is not about mothers.” Lenore retrieved a pattern piece from her own pile, which lay in a different corner, atop several boxes of sewing supplies.
The little girl had another query. She covered her mouth to muffle the offensive word. “Are we bastards because Father is one?”
Although it seemed to be so on the occasions when the children were tormented, Lenore said no. Now the hazel eyes of her youngest sister were staring at her in want of an explanation for the reply of no. Why did Harriett carry on so? It was a trial to work in the shop and still to be housemaid, maker of frocks and waistcoats, and very nearly a mother. With a goodly sigh, she made an effort as she looked about for a clearer explanation.
“Our grandparents never did wed,” she said. “The man who was responsible to marry our grandmother and also to take care of our father when he was a boy must have disappeared. As a result, Father was a . . . bastard child. The better people of the village scorned him and his mother. It is all we know.”
“Who are ‘the better people’?” Harriett asked, her chin moving up and down on the high pile of cloths as she spoke. What Harriett liked best was to engage her sister or anyone else in long conversations whether or not she fully grasped their gist.
Lenore attempted extreme patience. “Put . . . the . . . pieces . . . on . . . a . . . chair as I bade you. Fold each piece and make a pile on the corner of the table.”
At least Matilda, Charles, and James are not present to hinder me further. She spread a length of untreated fabric across the table, leaving the table’s far end for Harriett. A small beam of light from the high side window gave a square of brightness to the cloth. It gave the light brown appearance of the material a rather gray hue. She said, “‘Better people’ are families in which the mother and father make a proper marriage. First a man and woman marry, and next, the children are born.”
A wistful Harriett said, “Poor Father. He had no father.” Again, she looked to the window. Poor child had no mother.
Lenore closed her eyes. “Do stop, Harriett. None of this matters, after all.” With a hundred other tasks to complete, young Lenore simply must tend to the one at hand. She spied the paper pattern she needed for sleeves. She prepared to fit it economically onto the material. She must have the project finished in three days if she expected payment from Mr. Dalby.
In spite of her wish to get on with it, she was suddenly engulfed in the unfairness of ill treatment, possibly of any sort. Unbearably weary as well, Lenore continued to define a “bastard” but made no further effort to do so in simple terms for little Harriett. Her words gained speed and complexity and she might as well have been speaking to herself. “All we know is that we still suffer our father’s sad plight, and I pity all mothers and their children and grandchildren who are called that, for they were even listed as such. In church records, Father is written down as that sort of son. On the very page where his birth is announced, it also says, ‘William Brown natural son Ann pauper.’ Ann was his mother. He spoke of this to our aunt one day. I do not know why, as he never speaks of his family. He said to her that ‘natural’ son meant b–d son. Oh, we, all of us, know that word, and it is a cruelty in so many ways. The mothers of ‘natural’ children gain only lowly employment; indeed, if any at all.”
Harriett folded a heavy piece of dark green material into a square the size of a chair seat. “Was Father poor?”
“I have never heard Father speak of the past, except for that bit concerning his church record. He says all that is over and done with.”
“Did the children call him a b–d as well?”
“Of course they did.” Lenore threaded a needle. “If we are insulted from time to time, surely he was insulted far more often. Fetch me my pins, Harriett.” Lenore was done with talking, for she now placed pins between her lips, using one at a time to fasten the pattern pieces to the cloth. She continued to lament privately, however.
It was all very confusing. Their father was a good man. He was not at all disliked; quite the contrary, for he was friendly and kind, a dependable and honest businessman trusted by every shopkeeper in the Ock Street. It is possible that widower Brown could have been counted among the most respected of townsmen, sparse though his income was, had it not been for this affliction of shame into which he had been born. People resurrected such facts, generation after generation. Here and there, now and then, Lenore heard talk in the family and among neighbours. “William Brown,” they said. “Was Brown his mother’s maiden name or his father’s surname?” They went on and on. “Pity, is it not? Such an upstanding fellow, with such a poor reputation.”
Such torments mother and son must have suffered. In any case, William’s condemned heritage had developed in him an unremittingly humble and deferential demeanour that he passed on to his children.
Lenore’s deference and humility blended easily with the condition of servitude her kind father had been imposing on her. It truly was almost a slave-like situation, although he saw no other way for the family. He and the children must be tended to. He would not take a new wife. Martha’s illness and passing had very nearly broken him. He could not let go of memories. He could not forget his feelings for her.
A life without choices . . . Lenore did not question her father. She did not dream of a different life. She had no time to dream after scrubbing the hearth, scrubbing doorsteps, and scrubbing soiled clothes on a washboard until her knuckles bled for lack of skin; preparing every meal; mending; not to forget sewing in order to earn income. One would have wanted to ask during what hours she made those clothes for her sisters and brothers. She slept so hard that she was unaware of nightmares or even pleasant dreams that might have allowed her to awaken happy for a brief moment.
In his concerned, but similarly dejected, way, her father encouraged her to take no chances in life. “Do your best in your circumstances,” he always said. “Do not waste energy in hopes of wealth of any kind, not even the wealth of happiness. Accept our lot, my child, for it is where you find comfort. Your family will look after you. It is best all the children stay close, in this town, in Abingdon.”
Sixteen years of age, seventeen, and eighteen years; experience gained by Lenore was proving him right. Year upon year, no change was occurring either in her own circumstances or in any part of the life of Abingdon. Upon reaching a mature age, she did not give thought to marriage, for she knew well the fate of a wife. Wives’ burdens were still more severe than her own, since wives bore infants as well, one after the other. Her own mother had been with child seven times in twelve years and she was not unique. Nor was her untimely death unusual.
“Did Mother die in childbirth, Lenore?”
“I do not know, Harriett. Father does not talk about it. I expect so.”
Two customers had just left the shop with packages of meat tucked into their bags. Lenore noted the women’s expensive clothes. They could not be baronesses or ladies because baronesses and ladies seldom made their own purchases. They were at least somewhat informed, however, as their subject of discussion proved. They had been commenting on a recently hung oil painting of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. They had not seen it, only heard of it. It was a depiction of the royal couple’s wedding day in 1840. Mrs. Castle and Mrs. Camp longed to see the enormous painting but admitted they never would be invited to Windsor Castle where it hung. Pity, they said, with Windsor located not so far away from Abingdon. The artist was Sir George Hayter and he had captured Victoria, a small woman, gazing up at her tall consort with adoring eyes.
Now four years into the marriage, it was common knowledge in England that the Queen loved her husband dearly. Lenore shook her head. If ever I should dream of anything at all, she mused, I should not dream of marriage to a man I loved. I should dream of an easier life.
She gave even that very practical dream no power. No decent man with enough income to make her life easier would be knocking at her door. Not when she was a daughter of William Brown who was son of a Miss Brown rather than a Mrs. Brown. Even if a man earned low wages, as those of her humble working class did, he would be too respectable for the likes of her.
John Argyle, who lived farther west along Ock Street, across the road from the Cross Keys Tavern, had a plan. He was looking for a wife. He was already eight-and-twenty years of age. Life was short. He no longer hoped for romance in a marriage. He was ready for a settled life with a quiet, decent woman who would keep house and give him children. Lenore Brown looked quiet and decent. Head down almost always. He noticed her at chapel services on Sunday mornings. On occasion, he bought meat in the butcher shop. The fact that he scarcely knew her made no difference one way or another.
Lenore’s father and John Argyle met by chance one afternoon outside the tavern.
“Good day,” said the one.
“Good day,” said the other.
Mr. Brown would have left it at that, tipping his cap and continuing on his way. He was in a hurry to get back to his shop to relieve Lenore. It was Monday. She would be dividing herself between serving customers and scrubbing clothes.
Mr. Argyle was not so hurried. In fact, he stood in Mr. Brown’s way. “I intended to find you at your lodging, sir, not here by the Cross Keys,” he said. His eyes scanned the dusty road and his feet fidgeted. He cleared his throat and spoke again, still eyeing the road. “However, I am here–as you are–and it is just as well I make my case.” He coughed. “I shall just say it out, plain and clear, sir.” Ahem. “I am but a poor fellow,” he said, “a weaver, as you may know, like most of us Argyle men. Times being what they are, a weaver does not find all the work he wishes. Nevertheless, I manage and I have put away a small bit of money.” Now he looked at William Brown.
Why this confession, the butcher wondered. John Argyle had no need to defend himself. What could he be wishing to say? Mr. Brown tried to read the mind behind the eyes. The man seemed rather nervous.
Beneath a well-worn cap that was slightly askew, John Argyle’s complexion was taking on deeper and deeper shades of crimson. Suddenly, words tumbled from his lips. They poured out like the unstoppable Thames River when it flooded the fen in the spring of every year. They were abnormally loud. “Iaskpermissiontocourtyourdaughter.”
And yet, William was certain that he did not hear. Had Mr. Argyle just asked William the unlikeliest question ever put to him? “What was that, Mr. Argyle?”
“Oh. Ohh! Oh, my goodness!” William grasped it that time. With a mix of elation and shock coursing through him, it was his turn to cough. His own face felt hot. He struggled to pull himself together. Any hesitation might have young Argyle changing his mind, and William could not think of a single reason to discourage the man. When he found his voice, he could not control its low, gruff sound. He prayed that his mumble did not reveal a wildly stirred heart. “Of course, you speak of my Lenore. Indeed, you may court her. Nevertheless, you must meet with the maiden. Learn more about each other. See where it all goes from there.”
John Argyle laughed with relief. He had no words. His hand smote his head and knocked off his cap. When both men stooped to retrieve the cap William smelled alcohol on the young man’s breath. Early in the day for that, wasn’t it? Ah, well, the fellow had been on edge. Probably was trying to gain courage for the request. Yes, that was it. As they stood up, in a friendly gesture William returned the cap to John’s head. “There you are,” he said, setting it straight. “Now, I must be on my way.”
“Yes, yes, yes. Thank you, sir. Thank you. Good day.”
In their elation neither watched where the other went. Butcher Brown went home and John Argyle entered the Cross Keys Tavern.