“Yes, Milady.” Ernest Ochsbury, the solicitor who handled the Viscount Randstand business matters, straightened the papers in front of him. “The Viscount of Randstand has been declared deceased by the courts. Lord Micah is now the Viscount. You, of course, retain your title and will do so for some time, as Lord Micah is but a child of five years. As his sole living parent and therefore, his guardian, you will continue to oversee the financial affairs of the estate as you have done since Lord Randstand’s disappearance four years ago.” Tabitha Clemens, the Viscountess of Randstand took a deep breath. Arthur, her husband of six years, had been gone for four of those years. No one knew where he was. It seemed incomprehensible that he was now declared dead. For Tabitha, his death evoked a peculiar mixture of relief and regret. Theirs was not a happy marriage, and yet, he was her husband, and they’d had a child. It seemed surreal that the last four years had convinced the courts that he was dead. How strange the legal mind was, Tabitha thought. She had been a widow for all these years and had not known it.
Now, Arthur was dead, not because his body had been found, but because the court had declared him deceased. It all seemed very extraordinary. “I wonder . if I ought to wear mourning?” Mr Ochsbury’s expression was blank. This was not the sort of question one put to a man of the law. This was a woman’s question. He dealt with facts. “I am not conversant, Milady, with the social niceties of a situation such as this,” he replied, his tone a trifle cold. Women had such frivolous minds and even though the Viscountess was in many ways a commendable female, she was a member of a sex known for its frailty. Master Shakespeare had put it right.
‘Frailty, thy name is woman.’ “No, of course not,” Tabitha said apologetically. “I beg your pardon. It must seem a trivial sort of question, only I don’t quite know what the proper manner of behaviour is for an occasion such as this. I don’t know of anyone who’s suddenly found herself a widow without having had a husband in place for the last four years. Sailors’ wives, I suppose . I suppose they find themselves in this position?” Mr Ochsbury sighed. Really, the woman was glued to this absurd topic when the court had already made the decision. There was nothing more to be determined. She would continue to oversee the finances and the maintenance of the Randstand estate and the London house; she would continue to oversee her son’s education so that he could, in due time, take on the reins of authority which were so much better suited to males than to females.
Which reminded Ochsbury . “I received a message, Lady Randstand, from your father.” He was surprised at the look which entered the Viscountess’ gentle grey eyes. It was a look of dread. “My father? My father contacted you? For what purpose?” “To offer his guidance, now that you are in mourning and without male counsel,” Mr Ochsbury said immediately, as if this ought to be readily apparent. How could a woman raise a son on her own without male guidance? How could she possibly take charge of business matters relating to an estate such as Randstand? He knew that there was an estrangement between father and daughter; he and Mr Peregrine Greane were colleagues in the same profession and naturally, as the solicitor in charge of Randstand matters, their paths crossed. Despite the relationship breakdown, he expected her to accept her father’s offer without delay. As a dutiful widow, wife, and daughter would. “I have managed on my own for these last four years during my husband’s absence,” the Viscountess said with a firmness which seemed at odds with her demure countenance. “My son is well-behaved, healthy and intelligent.
I did not have his father to assist me in this matter.” “No, Madame, but now that the boy is the Viscount, he will require more than a mother’s gentle hand. He will need the firmness of a man to steer him aright.” Heaven help Micah, Tabitha thought wildly, if he had to adhere to his grandfather’s iron-fisted concept of parenting. “I think that, as Micah’s mother, I know what is best for him.” “But, Madame—” “Do you disapprove of the manner in which my son has grown?” “No, Madame, he is a most amiable and obliging boy. But—” “Do you find fault with the progress that he has made with his governess?” “No, I believe that he is a bright child and will be well prepared when it is his time to go away to school.” “Do you find him lacking in moral character?” “No, certainly not,” Ochsbury said, tiring of the exchange. “But as he is barely five years of age, he can hardly be said to be familiar with vice.” “He is a good boy and I have seen to it that he will grow up to be a good man.
As I did not require or have the assistance of my husband in the raising of our son, I think you are very impudent to imply that I now need my father to continue the process. Mr Ochsbury,” Tabitha said, rising to her feet, “you may tell my father that I appreciate his concern for his grandson, but pray assure him that Micah will not suffer from being raised by his mother.” “I believe, Lady Randstand, that your father meant only to be of assistance to you during this difficult time.” Assistance. Yes, Tabitha had no doubt that her father, the eminent lawyer, Peregrine Greane, fully intended to be of assistance. He had made his reputation by serving in a legal capacity to some of England’s most noble families and he had parlayed his expertise into a place in society which was seldom occupied by a man with no title. He had arranged a marriage for his daughter with a man who was fully as peremptory and rigid as he was, so that by means of Tabitha’s rise in status, he benefitted from proximity to the aristocracy. He had not asked her opinions on the match; it had been enough that he, her father, had sought and claimed an advantageous marriage for her. Assistance. What sort of assistance did Father believe he could offer? She had been a pawn in his social manoeuvring up to the day of her wedding, and after that, she had been the wife of Viscount Randstand, a mere woman, created to bear a son, which she had done.
Her purpose was defined thus. Arthur was not unkind or abusive, he had his share of indulgences but was not riddled with vice. At one point in their marriage, he could make her pulse beat with just one look. Back then, she had been sure that what was between them could so easily grow into love. But he was so like her father in his manner, so assured that in all matters, his will was paramount and his opinions the only ones worth consulting, that soon she felt as if she had traded one gilded cage for another. “I shall manage without his assistance, Mr Ochsbury.” She peered at the solicitor. “Mr Ochsbury, I believe I have shocked you.” “Not at all, Lady Randstand. It is just that a woman deprived of a husband’s loving guidance would naturally seek her father’s authority in order to maintain her son’s wellbeing, as well as her own.
A lady, tenderly reared, is no match for the wickedness of the world, and how can someone so pure and innocent be expected to raise a son?” “Tell me, Mr Ochsbury . would you say that our Lord Jesus was well brought up? Even though God Almighty did not provide the traditional style of parenting which we expect?” “I—Lady Randstand, I am not equipped to engage in a theological discussion.” “Nor am I. But I think that Mary did a commendable job of raising her son; would you not agree?” “Surely through the guidance of Joseph, her husband,” Mr Ochsbury protested. When he saw the Viscountess raise her chin to respond, he lifted his hand to forestall her. “Lady Randstand,” Mr Ochsbury griped, “you seem to be prone to pursuing topics of conversation in a most erratic manner, which I can only blame on your shock and grief at the news which I have brought to you. These topics—should you wear black, how do sailors’ wives mourn, was Jesus brought up in a proper manner—seem to indicate that you are much afflicted by the overwhelming burden of finding yourself a widow and the guardian of your son. I must recommend that you accept your father’s offer of assistance in this trying time, for your sake and that of the young Viscount.” Tabitha Clemens was not a tall woman by any means; in fact, she was round and diminutive, her curves only increasing the impression of complete femininity which were commendable in a woman but nonetheless, reminded Ochsbury of how weak a vessel the fair sex was. But when she stood up, commanding all of her inches, her manner was such that she seemed to be towering over him.
“Mr Ochsbury,” she said, her annoyance barely contained. “I remind you that you are in my employ, not my father’s, and if you cannot manage the Randstand affairs with the confidence of your position, I shall have to seek another solicitor.” Ernest Ochsbury’s jaw dropped. Was this meek little woman casting aspersions on his professional credentials? “Lady Randstand,” he said in protest, “I assure you that the firm of Langton and Ochsbury has never, not in the fifty years since my father opened his practice, disgraced our reputation by providing anything but discreet service to our clients, of which the Randstand family is numbered.” “Will you serve my son with the same efficiency and skill with which you served my husband?” “Of course!” “Then, will you, until he attains his majority, accept my judgment as equal to that of your other clients?” “I—” Lady Randstand’s grey eyes, usually as docile as a dove’s, affixed him with a stare that reminded him uncomfortably of a sword blade. Mr Ochsbury was a man of upright character, but he could not be called a man who had proven his courage by duelling. As Lady Randstand stared him down, he realised that he had somehow managed to lose the contest. “Yes, Your Ladyship,” he said, bowing in acknowledgement of her stance. “I shall deliver to your son the loyalty which I owe to the Viscount, and I am sure that you will not have cause to disapprove of my service to you.” “Very good, then, I believe we’ve settled that matter.
” “There will be more papers to sign,” he told her, relieved that the conversation had returned to its acceptable pattern. “My clerk is drawing them up now. I shall come by again in two days with the documents for you to sign.” “What sort of documents are those?” “Oh, the usual sort . no doubt you wish to appoint someone to manage your affairs for you, someone who can conduct your business arrangements, pay the wages of the staff, that sort of thing. Up until now, my office has taken care of those details which are very tedious for a woman, as we were acting on behalf of Lord Randstand. But now that His Lordship is, sadly, deceased, we must adopt another means of providing the support that you will need.” Tabitha frowned. “Are you saying that I am in need of a keeper, Mr Ochsbury? Someone who will manage my affairs?” “Yes, of course, Your Ladyship. Business affairs are not at all suitable for a young woman, especially one who is in your delicate emotional state.
Of course, you will marry again and then your husband will take over the responsibility of managing the Randstand estate and fortune. But for the time being—” “For the time being, Mr Ochsbury, I will manage the estate and fortune myself. I have, during the past four years, been managing very well, I think. It is true that you acted upon my behalf officially, but it was I who decided what the household and the estate required, and I think I may be entrusted with the continued responsibility of those matters. I have grown quite accustomed to such things, in fact, and I wish for my son to learn at an early age what privilege and rank entail. “He will not learn his duties if all these matters are turned over to someone else. I will show him what it means to be an attentive steward of his lands, his tenants, and his title. I assure you, Mr Ochsbury, I will not waste my son’s inheritance on fripperies and idle indulgences. I will be the mistress of my household, sir, and I will not defer to anyone telling me how to manage my son’s life or my own when they are accepting payment from the Randstand estate.” Her eyes were stormy grey as she stared him down.
“If there is nothing more, Mr Ochsbury?” she queried in dismissal.” Mr Ochsbury gathered up the documents that she had signed, the ink having dried on the paper. “Thank you, Lady Randstand. That is enough for today.” “I will come to your office at the end of the week,” she said, “so that you may sign over to me all rights which are mine as the manager of my son’s inheritance. I trust there will be no impediments to ceding this authority to me?” Mr Ochsbury hesitated, but the grey eyes meeting his suddenly evoked a martial intensity which he chose not to answer. “Not at all, Lady Randstand,” he said, remembering that his father, the senior Ernest Ochsbury, was still a major figure in the firm and would not be pleased if the custom of the Randstands were to be unfortunately lost to a competitor. “Everything will be in order, and we shall endeavour to be of service to you during this period and for the future.” Her smile was so sunny that he thought he must surely have mistaken her earlier ire. “I am glad to hear it, Mr Ochsbury.
My son will benefit from the continued service of Langton and Ochsbury, I trust.” “Certainly. We served Lord Micah’s grandfather and it is our great honour to serve the young Viscount in his turn.” The courtesies being thus maintained, Mr Ochsbury was able to depart with a sense that, if he had not precisely managed to steer the young widow into what he believed would be more navigable waters, he had at least not gone overboard himself in the process. As he got into his carriage, he assured himself that she would be most likely married within a year and he would be dealing with a man again, one who would be trusted to conduct himself with the due authority with which God had endued the male sex. After he left, Tabitha sank into the cushions of the sofa, feeling suddenly depleted after the confrontation. She put her head in her hands. What had she been thinking of, to do such a thing? Mr Ochsbury was an honest man; there was no doubt of his dedication to the Randstand estate and he would serve Micah with integrity. But would he undermine Micah’s mother in the process? The thought, unbidden, came to her as if she were suddenly seeing everything in a new, blinding light. Mr Ochsbury disapproved of a woman having control of family finances.
So did her father, who had, during the years that her mother was alive, obliged his wife to go to him for any purchase she wished to make, no matter how mundane, so that he could approve of the transaction. Tabitha herself had never handled money until Arthur had vanished and then she had had an allowance from the bank’s trustees. The heady sense of freedom had not turned her into an extravagant woman; if anything, it had made her even more discerning in the disbursement of funds for the household expenses. One day, Micah would be a husband and a father. Did she want him to treat his wife and his daughters with the same contempt that her father had displayed to his wife and then to Tabitha, denigrating their intellect without ever giving them the chance to prove their abilities? She did not. Rising from the sofa, Tabitha walked over to the window. Outside the glass, the broad expanse of Randstand extended as far as the eye could see, a rich and verdant vista of well-tended farms and well-maintained cottages. Beyond the boundaries of the estate was the town, a prosperous village whose citizens minded their businesses and their homes with an honest pride in their achievements. This would be Micah’s inheritance: the community of men and women who looked to the Viscount for leadership and character, trusting that their welfare was safeguarded in his care. Arthur had been a good Viscount, she acknowledged.
Whatever he had lacked as a husband, he had possessed as a landowner. He was not one to shirk his duty or neglect his lands in favour of superficial pastimes. That was something that she wanted Micah to learn as well. She would have to teach him those lessons in Arthur’s absence. Not absence, she corrected herself. Death. Arthur was gone. She was surprised to feel a sense of loss. Deep within her she must have still nurtured the belief that he was alive somewhere. A belief that maybe…she sighed.
Whatever might have been in their marriage was destined to remain barren. Perhaps, in time, as she gained confidence and assurance, she might have been strong enough to assert herself as a wife. She had gone from being the daughter of an overbearing man to being the wife of a man who ruled his household with what he regarded as firmness. Perhaps he would have mellowed as he had become accustomed to his role as a father and a husband. He had been so used to concentrating his energies on Randstand that he had had little thought for anything else. Even the season in London had been something which he had done reluctantly, as it took him away from the duties of the estate. London. She had not been there in so long. Would anyone even be surprised at the news that Arthur was dead? Did anyone even remember that his wife, although she lived in the countryside, was very much alive? Tabitha grimaced. She only had herself to blame.
She was the one who withdrew from the world, even from her beloved cousin Theodosia, now the current Marchioness of Marquenson. It would have cost her nothing to visit her and her husband David in their country estate or London house from time to time. But Arthur’s disappearance had left Tabitha with no wish to subject herself to the curiosity and pitying glances of the beau monde. As a consequence, she had not returned to London in the past four years. It was time to rectify that sojourn, Tabitha decided. Micah would one day take his place among his class and in order to make a place for him, his mother must prepare the way. Theodosia, who recently wrote to her with the happy news of her second birth, would not be in the capital but as soon as the season concluded Tabitha intended to re-connect with her beloved cousin. Her time of mourning was at an end.