A Little Folly

Jude Morgan

St. Martin's Press

A Little Folly: Chapter I

Sir Clement Carnell's ruling passion, until the very last moment of his life, was his passion for ruling.

In other times and circumstances he might have made a fine king of the absolute and despotic sort, bringing troublesome provinces to order, crushing rebels under his chariot wheels, and inscribing on a giant column his exact and fearsome laws. Being, however, only a country gentleman of Devonshire, he had to make do with tyrannising his wife and children.

He had married late; not through any lack of eligibility on his own part, for he possessed a good estate, and was impressive, even handsome in looks. Marital candidates there had been, but all had exhibited some deplorable shortcoming, such as a mild independence of mind, or a wish to have their feelings occasionally considered, which had rendered them unacceptable to a man of Sir Clement's character. The bride he at last chose was much younger than he, and sufficiently impressionable to mistake the awe she felt for him as love. She liked, as she said, a man to be masterful. The best that could be said for the unhappy consequences of her choice was that she had not long to endure them. She died less than ten years after her marriage, having presented Sir Clement with two children, and having had her opinion of herself so thoroughly lowered, degraded and trampled by her husband that her dying regrets at leaving her little boy and girl were almost overcome by the conviction that they would be better off without her.

Where another man might have been given solemn pause by the prospect of bringing up two motherless children, Sir Clement, once the obligations of grief were over, rather welcomed it. His experience of matrimony had given him a disdain for feminine softness, and in taking exclusive charge of these two young lives he saw an opportunity.

He was a man of harsh, narrow and illiberal views, considering the times decayed and most men fools; - and not being afraid to say so, he had quarrelled with most of his neighbours. In his younger years he had done his duty as a Parliament-man, and there his unthinking deference to the great and powerful had been enough to secure his knighthood. Now he was done with London, which he condemned as a haunt of fashion and idleness; and was very ready to remain at his country seat of Pennacombe, isolated and self-sufficient, and there pursue a sort of experiment in authority, which would demonstrate to the world what could be achieved by a man who was determined truly to be master in his own house.

His tenants and servants knew, to their cost, the sharpness of his temper and the ferocity of Sir Clement's demands for obedience; but their subjection was as nothing to that of his children, who must live every moment under his close supervision. There, he could not only dominate but manipulate; could bend them to his will by playing upon the natural love that even so undeserving a parent must elicit; and in short, could reduce them to a continual state of fearful and self-doubting unhappiness, equal to everything his caprice and ill-nature could devise.

Education there must be, but of his choosing. Neither boy nor girl must be sent away, out of his sight and control: instead Sir Clement engaged, for Valentine and Louisa, a succession of tutors and governesses. They came and went rapidly. Partly this was the consequence of Sir Clement's infinite capacity for finding fault; but more than that, as soon as any of these teachers began to manifest an influence over their pupils, he was roused to jealousy; - and if any were unlucky enough actually to be liked by their charges, their doom was sealed at once. For while he did nothing to secure his children's affection, he could not endure to see it bestowed elsewhere; and was quick to impress on them that in doing so, they were very ungrateful and unnatural creatures.

Valentine, when the time came, was sent up to Oxford, chiefly because Sir Clement had been there; but after a single term, his father put an end to his university career. A couple of tailor's bills, a few unwontedly cheerful and spirited remarks, were enough to convince Sir Clement that his son was going rapidly to the bad. As he stood sole heir to Pennacombe, there was no necessity for Valentine to pursue a profession; but after the Oxford disaster, he did speak tentatively of studying the law, only to have the idea firmly rejected - because it was his idea, because all lawyers were fools and knaves, and because it would mean his going to London, at the furthest remove from his father's surveillance and control. No, he was to remain at Pennacombe - and remain there quite without interest or occupation; for while many men of Sir Clement's age and situation would have been glad to pass on to their grown sons some of the responsibilities of the estate, of stewardship and accounting and management of the home farm, Sir Clement kept them all under his own hand. As a result, at the age of twenty-three Valentine was just such an idle and discontented young man as Sir Clement had always sharply condemned; and he could not understand it.

As for Louisa, there his self-appointed task was simpler. He was so far from a friend to learning in females that he would have spared even the usual accomplishments of music and drawing if convention had not made them obligatory. But the sole aim and purpose of a daughter of Sir Clement Carnell must be to make a good marriage; and that he had already planned to his own satisfaction, having chosen the candidate when she was scarce sixteen. Only the sentimental degeneracy of the times, indeed, had prevented him drawing up a contract with an attorney, and binding her to it there and then. Some evidences of her own will in the matter there had been - taking the form of evasions, shifts and silences rather than mutiny - but he had no doubt of conquering it when the time came. It would never have occurred to Sir Clement that he knew his daughter very little: that his continual scrutiny had necessarily fostered in her the habit of reserve, and the art of disguise - especially when, as often happened, she undertook to shield her brother from the worst excesses of his authority. Being a woman, she was in his view not only as frail as glass but as transparent.

Alas for Sir Clement, he could not absolutely direct the lives of Valentine and Louisa once they were come to adulthood, as he could when they were children. Some concessions there must be to the forms of society, for though he did not mind being disliked, he was averse to being despised. He could not deprive them of the odd tea-visit, riding-party or even ball without injuring his own standing: the Carnells must make a figure in the social life of the neighbourhood in which he was the chief landowner. But he contented himself by making sure that they did not go about often, that their acquaintance was strictly limited, that their conduct was always rigidly regulated, and that they enjoyed themselves as little as possible.

It is not wonderful to relate that Louisa and Valentine Carnell depended greatly on each other, and were joined by a bond of exceptional affection, loyalty and mutual protectiveness. They were so sustained by it that those who came upon them expecting to find them pitiable objects were much surprised. Their aspect was rather subdued than crushed; they were not at all tongue-tied, if their father was not by; and both were so well grown, well figured and handsome - their infrequent smiles, as light springing from darkness, so entrancing - that one could only wonder what effect might be produced by a little more confidence of address, and a little less of a tendency to look over their shoulder.

What the interested observer must find the most intriguing conjecture, however, was their likely future: - if and when that single dominating influence were to be removed, and they found themselves at liberty.

One such observer was Mrs Lappage, the widow of the former rector of Pennacombe. During the rector's life, and for some time after, she had been one of the few people in the district on easy terms with the family at Pennacombe House. Having no children of her own, and being a civil, active, good-natured woman, never happier than when she was giving herself trouble about something, she became as near as she dared a friend to the motherless Carnells, with an ear for their whispered confidences, and a heart to feel always for their situation, regardless of the little power she had to ameliorate it. But even this degree of influence was ended before Louisa and Valentine were grown. She decided to marry again - she was never quite sure why: it was, she supposed, someone to talk to. Her choice, Mr Lappage, was a retired corn-factor. He was a respectable, comfortable, unassuming man, and his manners, when he was awake, were perfectly good. But Mrs Lappage had found herself immediately sunk in Sir Clement's estimation.

'He had known the times were sadly decayed: - still he was shocked, deeply shocked, to see the widow of a clergyman so blind to decorum, and so willing to throw away the good opinion of society, and lower herself by such a connection, especially at her time of life.' Mrs Lappage was no longer welcome at the great house, and calls at Mr Lappage's pleasant grange-house were entirely proscribed. Mrs Lappage must satisfy her curiosity and compassion - both equally lively - by such chance encounters with Louisa and Valentine as could be managed; and soothe her feelings by many reiterations that it was a shame and scandal how that odious old man carried on, and by gathering every grain of intelligence about what went on behind the high park walls of Pennacombe.

And it was from this source that came the story of Sir Clement Carnell's last hours; of how they had been marked, and even hastened, by his domineering temper. The servants and labourers in his employ were always welcome at the kitchen-door of the Grange, there to eat a slice of pie and drink a cup of Mrs Lappage's excellent table-beer, and incidentally unburden themselves of any news from Pennacombe House. When, in the late autumn of 1813, it was given out that Sir Clement Carnell had died, the account was merely 'suddenly at home, after a short illness', a theme subsequently taken up in the newspaper obituaries; but Mrs Lappage knew the facts in all their revealing detail.

Sir Clement, a devoted huntsman, had returned from the day's chase and, faithful to habit, had stayed lingering about the stables to see his horse unsaddled, and minutely direct every stage of the operation. He had begun the day in more than usually irritable mood; his face, the groom recalled, had been red as beefsteak; and then had come the moment the young man could only recollect hazily, so awful were the circumstances. He had hung a piece of riding-tackle on the wrong hook - a hook quite apt for the purpose, but not the usual one - and Sir Clement had begun violently berating him. The groom had not been long in his employ and, half flustered and half desperate, had answered that it didn't signify.

Didn't signify! At this Sir Clement burst into a passion, excessive even for him. Perhaps this simple assertion so flew in the face of everything he believed that he experienced a touch of self-doubt, of which only the extremes of fury could purge him. He roared that he would teach the idle fellow what signified, ordered him to follow him to the house, even began bodily marching him thither - whether to give him notice, or simply make a blazing example of him before the other servants, was unknown, and would for ever remain so. Halfway across the stableyard he was struck by a paroxysm that dropped him speechless to the ground.

He was carried into the house insensible, and remained so through the succeeding night, except for a brief stir of consciousness in which he was heard to mutter something that sounded like 'Doesn't signify ...!' His physician did all he could in the way of bleeding, sighing and looking grave; but the heart-stroke was too severe, and come the morning those relentless and all-seeing eyes were finally closed.

There was matter here for the moralist; - Mrs Lappage, for one, could not resist a frequent shake of the head, and a murmur about chickens coming home to roost. Her first concern, however, was not with the dead but with the living: what must be the feelings of Louisa and Valentine - their shock, the grief that they were too natural not to feel, and their probable bewilderment at the utter transformation of their lives that must ensue?

'It is not my intention to speak ill of the departed,' she told her husband. 'That would never do. The evils of Sir Clement's character were well known in his lifetime, and I shall not allude to them now. Still, everyone must acknowledge - due respect being paid - that it is a release for his children. It would be doing violence to the truth to deny it.'

Mr Lappage showing no signs of denying it, or of doing anything at all, she went on: 'Still, it is a most perplexing situation they are placed in. I almost wonder whether that frightful old tyrant - not to speak ill of him - has so long denied them the power of thinking for themselves that now it is theirs they will hardly know how to exercise it. And you know even the most unsightly old building, when it is gone, somehow leaves a vacancy, and the eye misses it.'

'Like Phelps's barn,' Mr Lappage offered.

But Mrs Lappage was not thinking of Phelps's barn, as she reminded him with some vexation. She was thinking of Louisa and Valentine, and such was her anxiety that she almost determined to attend the burial of Sir Clement in the Carnell vault at Pennacombe church, so that she might see them. But it had not been the custom of her youth for women to attend funerals, and she could not overcome the scruple. She must content herself with her husband's promise to give her a full report of the occasion; though his powers of observation and description were not great. Some years ago at Weymouth he had come face to face with the King; but he had never been able to give any stronger idea of him to his wife's eager mind than that he had a hat on.

Mr Lappage did his best, however: counted the carriages, marked the black plumes on the horses' heads, and memorised some choice phrases of the officiating rector's. This did not satisfy.

'But Louisa and Valentine,' his wife cried, 'what of them?'

'Oh, they were there, right enough,' Mr Lappage assured her. 'The only family that I could see, in fact.'

'No surprise in that: - there are no close connections left on his side, for he outlived them all; and as for poor Lady Carnell's family, he quarrelled with them long ago, and would not even hear them mentioned.'

'Ah! well, there it is,' said Mr Lappage, with peaceful finality, and was about to enquire about dinner, when his wife caught him up with vehemence.

'But how did they appear? Louisa and Valentine - they will look I am sure very well in mourning, with their height and colouring - but how do they bear up? With dignity I am sure - they never lack that, though heaven knows how they maintained it under his rule - but, then, they are very unaccustomed to that sort of exposure, poor creatures.'

'Well, if you want the truth of it,' said Mr Lappage, seating himself and thoughtfully patting his waistcoat, 'I never saw anyone so absolutely broken up as those two today. Lord! It was as if the world had ended.'

Mrs Lappage pondered on this; and astonishment soon made room for understanding. The liveliness of her interest in the two young people quickened to an almost unbearable degree; but it was not to be easily assuaged. She had too much delicacy to call at a house where only a week ago her presence had been forbidden: it seemed a vulgar presumption - as if to say that now he was out of the way she could do as she liked. But to the accustomed quiet and retirement of a house in mourning there seemed, in the subsequent weeks and then months, something else added. Neither Louisa nor Valentine was much seen about: short polite notes were sent out in reply to those who had made the formalities of condolence; and from any evidence that Mrs Lappage could gather, there might have been no change at Pennacombe House - no lifting of a weight of oppressive authority - nothing to show that the estate had a new master and mistress, young, free, and with the world before them.

'I am very much afraid,' she said to herself, as she walked again by the high park walls, and in the leafless grey of February, 'that that monstrous old man - not to speak ill of him - is still in command of that house, and that his influence will never end!'

A LITTLE FOLLY. Copyright © 2010 by Jude Morgan. All rights reserved.