Albert, despite being Persey's stepson, is a year older than she. He is somber, dutiful and still utterly mystified by the young woman his father took for a second wife eight years ago. Holbrooke is his life and he believes firmly that everything he does is for the good of the estate. And for his peace of mind.
For Albert it would be best if the dowager simply kept herself busy with her charity missions - the county hospital and the local village school she founded - but she insists on meddling in what he sees as "matters of the estate." These include the future marriage prospects of his little sister Honoria. The latest bone of contention between himself and Persey is how to find a husband for Honoria. Albert, in his usual organized fashion, has chosen two suitable, thoroughly-vetted prospects and expects his sister to select one of them. Persey thinks her stepdaughter should be able to choose her own husband from a wider pool than only two, hand-picked by Albert. After all, as she points out, Albert's matrimonial choices are not necessarily wise.
But she gets her vengeance in any way that she can, desperate to make a place for herself and let everybody know that she is now the mistress of the estate. In her eyes, her mother-in-law is in interfering busybody of whom Albert is far too tolerant. Well, she'll put a stop to that. Albert's stepmother can call her "Minty" as often as she likes - knowing how Araminta despises the sobriquet - but the new Marchioness of Holbrooke has finally found a way to really get under the skin of her nemesis. She's persuaded Albert to hire a talented, highly-fashionable young garden designer to improve the estate grounds and dig up the rose gardens that her mother-in-law loves so much.
As she gleefully tells Persey "Out with the old, in with the new."
Excerpt below from THE PECULIAR FOLLY OF LONG LEGGED MEG.
Grim-faced, the target of her entreaty sat like a tall, stout, silent tree trunk at the end of that long table, his eyes two round, dark, gloomy hollows, exposing a slowly decaying heartwood within the bark. Apparently he could not enjoy his boiled egg with any relish until she stopped talking, so his spoon remained poised in mid-air, the first crack yet to be administered with his usual firm swing. And she, suspecting he might agree with her reasoning, merely to be rid of her and get on with his egg, made the most of this chance.
"Before he died," she continued, "your father said to me: Persephone, I ask of you only one thing. To guard and guide Honoria in any way that you can. And I swore, there and then, while that dear man lay upon his deathbed, that I would uphold his wishes."
Albert lowered his arm slowly to the table, the spoon's purpose postponed further.
"I took this vow to mean in matters of the heart, as well as any other," she added. "I, after all, have some experience of these torments, having lost two husbands I adored."
The only response to this impassioned plea was a frigid sigh, little more than a breath one might exhale upon pinching one's finger in a well-sprung gate hinge. But Persephone waited patiently, familiar with her stepson's lack of animation and the slow, unenthused tempo with which he digested anything she ever said. As if he might have some reason to be suspicious of her motives and think her a woman of wicked cunning. Which she most certainly was not. Three quarters of the time.
He studied the spoon in his hand, and then the boiled egg nestled in its little silver cup. One by one, the items on the table before him received a thoughtful scrutiny, while the dowager marchioness waited, somehow restraining herself from beating him about the head with her leather gardening gauntlets, trying desperately to remember her place. She might be his father's widow, and thus entitled to a degree of respect from the very proper marquess, but she was, in fact a year younger than he, and that always caused a certain friction in their debates.
When he finally struck the shell of his boiled egg, it was with just a little too much force, and the yolk spurted out onto the cuff of his coat. Much to his stepmother's amusement, a change was finally wrought to Albert's physiognomy, as he gazed at the new, brilliant gold trimming to his coat sleeve.
It was quite beyond her to resist a jaunty, "Oops. That's sure to stain."
At this point, Albert's wife decided to assert herself shrilly into the conversation without having listened to most of it. With her plate filled from the chafing dishes on the sideboard, she lowered herself grandly to a chair across the table and exclaimed, "Of course my husband wants the best for Lady Honoria. That is without question. So is the fact that, as her elder brother, it is his place to decide what constitutes a good match."
"That's what I am afraid of," Persephone muttered into her coffee cup.
The younger woman bristled. "And what, pray tell, is that supposed to mean?"
"Like most things I say, it is nothing of any import to you, I'm sure, Minty dear."
"I have asked you before, many times, not to call me by that dreadful sobriquet! My name is Araminta. It is disrespectful to shorten it in such a fashion. Minty, indeed! Albert, I wish you would tell her."
The dowager marchioness set down her cup and looked innocently at her daughter-in-law. "But we are family, my dear." She stirred more sugar into her coffee. "Folk call me Persey all the time. It is a term of affection and if it puts people at their ease in my presence I do not object to it."
"But Persey does not have the connotation of a humbug!"
Persephone quickly looked down at her lap, clutching a napkin to her lips, for fear of exploding with laughter.
"My stepmama," Albert finally intoned with grave formality, "has a distressingly informal manner, applied to everything she does. It amused my father greatly and so it was never discouraged, but rather the opposite."
"And now we reap the consequences by having so much grievous laxity about the place," his wife exclaimed, adding smugly, "But that will change now."
Albert inclined his head a half inch. "Since I inherited the marquessate I have done what I can to steer the place with a firmer hand— something that my lord father relinquished in his latterly years, when self-indulgent pleasures often overcame his duty to efficiency and responsibility."
"As one of those decadent pleasures, I suppose you'd be rid of me if you could, Albert dear," his stepmother remarked, not entirely in jest. "Pension me off somewhere, even farther away than the lodge. Erase all sign of my short reign at your father's side altogether."
He gave a pained sigh. "My lord father found good in you, Persephone, and I know you are a woman of mostly decent intentions." Here his wife exhaled a skeptical snort of great dimension, but he did not look at her and continued addressing his stepmother. "Your efforts on behalf of the parish sick are much to be commended. And I must admit that, despite the difference in your ages and my own doubts when he first brought you here, you made my lord father's last six years enjoyable. I make no argument with that. I simply wish you would now take your new place as his widow, satisfy your need to meddle with those worthy missions you have taken on about the village, and leave me to manage my sister and other matters of the estate."
"But that is just it, Albert. Honoria is not a matter of the estate! She is not an overgrown yew tree hedge, a crumbling wall, or a portrait in need of restoration. She is your sister, a young woman with a beating heart and deep feelings. She is desirous to marry for love."
Unlike you, she might have added, but thought better of it. Her daughter-in-law watched and listened at that moment with the sharpened senses of one determined to find fault, and Minty had a habit of contriving sly, effective ways to get her vengeance if she thought herself slighted. "My sister knows she has a duty to marry well, and I'm sure she wishes to please me," Albert replied, pushing his disappointing egg aside. "There are two suitors I have deemed acceptable. I cannot see why she needs a greater choice than two. Indeed, she is fortunate to have the indulgence of a choice at all. When a young girl is given too much variety in life, the likelihood of making a dire mistake is increased."
"But I'm afraid Honoria has considered both those gentlemen that you were so kind as to offer her— has considered them at length— and she cares for neither enough to marry."
"And why, pray tell, does she not come to me herself with this news?"
"Because she adores you, Albert, and does not want to let you down. She dreads your disapproval."
He rolled his eyes toward her as if they were heavy in their sockets. "So she thought you would serve as a better, more agreeable messenger of this news?"
Persey chuckled softly. "Your sister knows I am already dented and bruised. She bears me before her like a shield that has withstood too many blows. One more can hardly damage me."
There was, very nearly, a smile from the marquess. Or perhaps it was simply another swallowed belch. Whatever it might have been, the expression was aborted in the next moment when Araminta scraped her fork tines across her plate and her voice across their nerves at the same pitch.
"Your sister is an ungrateful chit who cannot be satisfied, Albert. She will never be content in life, because nothing pleases her. She is a sulky, selfish girl, unappreciative of our efforts on her behalf."
Persey held her temper as tightly as she clutched a crumpled napkin in her hand. "I believe she appreciates everything her brother does for her, and very much so."
"Humph!" Araminta stabbed her herring and then dropped her fork, as if the effort of eating was all too much for her after all.
"Albert," Persey turned to implore her stepson again, "please try to understand that your sister's heart must be won before she can agree to marry. I know it sometimes happens that love comes after the wedding, growing gradually over the years and with tender familiarity. But often times it does not and in such cases there is only misery for both parties. Your sister does not want that risk for herself, or for her future husband. And since she need be in no haste, surely—"
"The girl has never been sensible, and you fill her head with more romantic nonsense," the woman across the table muttered.
"Think of passion, Albert," Persey persisted. "The inexplicable connection between a man and a woman that cannot be bought or arranged or negotiated. Think of the quickening pulse, of the shortened breath, the longing and gladness one feels in one's heart, the exquisite yearning heat that comes with — "
He held up his hand for silence, his creaking trunk pressed slightly backwards as if by a stiff gale. "That's quite enough, Persephone. I do not care for that sort of talk in any guise, but especially not at breakfast. Particularly when discussing my virtuous, little sister. The less she feels of that the better for all." A quick, uncomfortable glance at his wife followed this remark, but Minty was busy admiring herself in the silver creamer, momentarily distracted again. He continued addressing his stepmother. "I believe you know my opinion on the dangers of getting oneself overheated, madam. I understand some folk have less capability of maintaining self-control, but only you appear to think such failure worthy of celebration rather than censure."
"One cannot control one's heart, Albert. It is not an egg to be boiled and served on command."
"That may be true for a weaker person with little else to consume their thoughts. One who thinks of mischief at all hours of the day and night. A person, for instance—" he turned his sad eyes to her "—who has a very comfortable existence and wants for nothing, might spend far too much time on the contemplation of romance, and when they are beyond it themselves, they might begin to assign their own passions and ideas to the minds of young girls who are easily bent to their will and lured from the path of duty. It is all too common for one who feels her own better days might be behind her, to seek a life vicariously through someone younger."
Well, that was wholly unfair, she thought, tossing yet more lumps of sugar into her coffee. He was very fortunate that she happened to be fond of trees and couldn't hold the occasional snagged skirt or sleeve against them. The one thing she must always remember about Albert was that he rarely felt an insult himself and therefore was surprised when anybody else did.
"But you want your sister to be happy, do you not? Your father did not interfere in your match."
"Of course my father did not interfere," he said crisply. "He knew that I would not make my choice with a head clouded by love and romance. None of that was imperative to me when I chose my future companion. I looked specifically for a woman who would not arouse those kind of disturbances as you describe in my pulse and my heart— an organ, incidentally, that must continue to function steadily, without interruption, in order to keep me alive and of use to this estate. I looked for a woman of everything plain."
During this speech, his wife had put down the silver creamer and begun to listen again as Albert talked proudly of the lack of passion in his married life. Persey felt her daughter-in-law's eyes, like wasps, darting about, looking for somebody to sting. Oh, this would not be good for her at all.
(copyright Jayne Fresina 2017)
Illustrations above: Painting of James Erskine, Lord Alva by Allan Ramsay (1713-1784) and portrait of Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland by George Romney 1782.