Back in the summer of 1799, Jane Price had swept out of Cranford House and the Berkeleys’ lives in high dudgeon. Though a humble governess to the younger children, she felt that she had not been accorded the respect which was her due. She should have occupied a position on a par with the Reverend Mr Carrington, the older boys’ tutor, whose erudition had been acquired at Pembroke College, Cambridge. It rankled that as chaplain to the family, he was taken into confidence where she was not. But it was not her place in the pecking order that had caused the Berkeleys to cavil at inviting her to share their table with noteworthy guests, it was her presumption and her cattiness.
Price’s first seaport that August day had been Wisteria Cottage, the home of Lord Berkeley’s disaffected friend, John Chapeau and his wife, Martha, in Sheepcote Lane. Mr Chapeau was a cleric who had been deeply struck by how ill-used Mary had been at the Earl’s hands. His parochial-minded wife, a descendent of the family of Archbishop Chichele, had had no truck with the set-up at the House and, since ‘Miss Tudor’ had become the Countess, saw the situation as very little repaired when the couple were claiming to have been married for the last fifteen years.
Catching sight of the governess’ austere black crown bobbing along outside the window, Mr Chapeau was seized of a pressing desire to reconstruct his latest sermon. He gained the asylum of his study just as Rachel, their maid-of-all-work, was lifting the door-latch.
“Why, my dear Jane, whatever’s amiss?” cried Martha, leading her into the parlour. “Come, sit and compose yourself. Will you take a dish of tea?”
Price smoothed the greying wisps at her temples and took off her bonnet, jabbing pins into its brim with lethal energy. She drew herself up taut. “I have resigned my post,” she declared. “I cannot endure that charade any longer.”
“The Berkeleys have let you go?”
“They had no choice in the matter!”
“You handled the children so well.”
“What are they to me, Martha? Let us speak plainly. A parcel of hooligans!”
“My dear, that is indeed very harsh,” said Mrs Chapeau, treading cautiously. Price was not clear whether she was the subject or the object of this proposition. “Lady Berkeley has a powerful temper at times. Of course, my acquaintance was only a passing one. I didn’t hold with their way of living.”
“The boys made searching enquiry of their Mama’s status and I was obliged to give an honest answer. Imagine how confused they are! The servants themselves were prone to gossip in the children’s hearing! …You wouldn’t remember Amaryllis Tudor?”
“The name is familiar.”
“No relation of ‘Miss Tudor’, naturally, for that was a fiction as we all know.”
“Lily Tudor! Why, yes, I do recall Mr Chapeau speaking of her. Did the poor lass’s mother not drown at high tide?”
“A silly girl,” said Price witheringly. “Ran off to London with the Mails! Thought she could better herself.”
“Yes, Lady Berkeley fretted about the dangers she might be exposed to and counselled against it. She appeared to know a great deal about that sort of thing.”
Price came out of her abstraction and focused the alert gaze of her hostess. “Lily was headstrong. Rather above herself. I have my theories about Lily. But there, I shall not expatiate, for I do not relish tittle-tattle. The scalpel of truth is my instrument!”
“You must have felt compromised in your situation.”
“Martha, you do not know the half of it,” said Price, gratified to command the stage. “I have seen and heard things I could not repeat. Dark deeds have been done.”
Mrs Chapeau caught her breath. “Ooh! You don’t say so!”
“Mr Chapeau may think the Countess has been very hard done by, but she is no innocent. A more manipulative...”
“Indeed, my husband and I have not seen eye to eye on that. It has caused great dissension between us.”
“When the Prince of Wales visits, I am expected to retire with the servants. I am swept under the carpet like dust! You see, I’m aware what goes forward. There will come a time, mark my words, when it will be my duty to speak out in public. And I shall have no qualm about doing it, Martha. None at all! If they swing for it, that will not be my doing!”
Mrs Chapeau, cheated of details, began to pour tea in an agitated fashion. She had an uneasy inkling that Price was hoping to lodge under her roof. “But where will you go? How shall you contrive?”
The governess gave a vain tilt of her head and the beginnings of a crafty smile pursed her lips. “Why, I’m minded to rent a cottage in the village. I’m an abstemious woman and do not expect to be without means.”
When the Reverend Mr Chapeau learned of Price’s intentions, he groaned aloud. There would be no peace. The neighbourhood would become a scandal factory. Price was the kind of woman who always did the right thing from suspect motives. She scattered the good in people until they had no purchase upon it.
By Michaelmas, it was clear that she meant to abide by her plan and she took up residence in Watersplash Lane, near the old ford. The two women were backwards and forwards to each other’s parlours from then on. There was no reasoning with Martha. Mr Chapeau tried to think well of mankind, but could not conquer the devilish notion that some sort of mischief was brewing. He took to visiting their son’s family in Lambeth by himself and to staying for increasing periods of time. Eventually, he thought he might as well seek out rooms of his own in the centre of Town, now that he no longer dined or went shooting at Cranford Park. It would plug the hole made by his rupture with Lord Berkeley after three or four decades of friendship. When the Berkeleys were away, he and Martha had become caretakers with a free run of the house so that most of their existence was consumed by his lordship’s diary and habits.
Martha Chapeau seemed unnaturally content to let this wash over her. Ever mindful of her ecclesiastical heritage, she had expended a fair portion of her life’s breath in prevailing upon her husband to distance himself. The Berkeleys had an ungodly reputation which would rub off on all who associated with them. Now that he had adopted her view, she was bereft of her cause and, curiously, of him. What had been a comfortable partnership had dissolved into the mere shadow of itself and her friendship with Jane became unduly engrossing. Jane was the first person of whom Martha could say that she was made to feel virtuous by the contact.
One showery April day, Price called at Wisteria Cottage in a state of glowing excitement.
“Only guess who has descended upon Cranford Park? I saw him riding along the drive.”
“My dear Jane, I haven’t a notion.”
“Mr Ferryman?” The door was still only half ajar. “Mr Robert Ferryman?”
Price shook out her cane-ribbed umbrella and elbowed her way over the threshold. “Now what business can he have at the Park, do you suppose?”
“I really cannot conceive,” said Mrs Chapeau, unable to view this as any kind of portent. “The last we heard of him he’d gone to Cheltenham, or Leicestershire, or Petworth, was it? I don’t precisely recall.”
“He will be embarrassed, you may depend.”
“You think he’ll have come to beg favours?”
“Oh, undoubtedly. They never lived in any but Queer Street! Perhaps he has heard that Mr Carrington is released from his tutorship,” said Price, mentally rifling the possibilities.”
The governess shook her head impatiently. “His is an invidious role, Martha. He’s in receipt of all manner of knowledge. He’d to stand up in the House of Lords and support their story. And the children can be most exacting interrogators!”
“Mr Ferryman would not have that handicap, I dare say. But he and Lord Berkeley had such a falling out as would make a tinker blush!”
“Yes, how well I recall it. He set sail one summer in the Formidable with Admiral Berkeley– then a humble Captain, if memory serves – and had returned by October. He did not have the funds to sustain that style of life. You could say he was well and truly out of his depth!”
“It was most unwise of the Earl to recommend him.”
“Wise! When did the doings of milord Berkeley ever manifest wisdom? He wanted Ferryman out of the way. That is the size of it.”
“The family’s neediness must have been trying, even to them, Jane. Lady Berkeley did offer to pay for the children’s schooling.”
“And never honoured it. Ferryman thought the school she suggested inferior and objected in the strongest terms. In the end, he put the children through Mrs Cruttwell’s at Hammersmith and her ladyship refused to pay the fees.” Price’s Welsh-black eyes swung up to the ceiling beams. “There, now! Lady Berkeley’s thrift! I could give a dissertation on that which would last a week! She had the maids cutting up her old petticoats to make clothes for the little Ferrymans! The parents couldn’t be blamed for reacting as they did. They had their pride.”
“But no money, apparently. I never understood why the Berkeleys entertained them at all.”
“His lordship’s a sociable fellow, intrigued by new inventions. Robert Ferryman was happy to allow Sibylla to dine in company with ‘Miss Tudor’.” Price shrugged with a dismissive grimace. “They were totally in thrall to the Berkeley myth.”
“So you think he’s here to mend fences?”
“At least a chain of lubricious layering! And with a stile over!” The governess’ voice dropped to a soliloquy. “Although it might be said that milord has good reason to humour him.”
“Indeed? Why so?”
“Strictly entre nous, Martha, for I do not wish to find myself before the beak for slander, Mr Ferryman rendered his lordship a very great service in having a child baptised. There was talk below stairs….”
“Oh, they were all baptised, even the children of nature. Mr Chapeau himself performed the eldest one’s.”
“No, no, Martha. Not hers. Not Lady Berkeley’s offspring. I have oft reflected that it would have done much to quell her ambition if she’d known the goings-on under her own roof!”
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