An excerpt from the novel Just Where You Stand. Copyright is held by the author.
Abingdon, Berkshire, England 1843
LENORE’S DEFERENCE and humility blended easily with the condition of servitude which her kind father had been imposing on her. It truly was almost a slave-like situation although Butcher Brown saw no other way for the family. His motherless children must be tended to. The illness and passing of his woefully missed wife had very nearly broken him. He would not seek a new partner; could not let go of memories; could not forget his feelings for Martha. Thus, he relied heavily on Lenore who was his eldest child, to see to the younger offspring.
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 door-steps, 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 clothes for her sisters and brothers. She slept so hard that she was unaware of nightmares or even pleasant dreams, which 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,” William 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, 17 and 18 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 12 years and she was not unique. Nor was her untimely death unusual.
“Did Mother die in childbirth, Lenore?” five-year old Harriet asked.
“I do not know, Harriet. 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. Yes, her father had been born a bastard. Like her siblings she had inherited his disgrace. Any man in search of a wife, even if he earned low wages as those of her humble working class did, would not wish his reputation tainted by marriage into the Brown family.
John Argyle, who lived further west along Ock Street across the road from the Cross Keys Tavern, had a plan. He was looking for a wife. Already eight and 20 years of age and well aware that lifespans were typically short, he no longer hoped for romance in a marriage or considered with any seriousness, the heritage of a possible bride. 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, which 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 younger 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.
“Lenore, dear, the customers are gone and I have news for you. Come, stay a minute with me.”
Her father recounted the entire meeting and ended with the words, “Marriage into the Argyle family could benefit all of us, my dear. Despite their near poverty the family enjoys respect.”
If anyone had asked Lenore what she knew of John Argyle, she would have said he lived down the road with his parents, had two brothers who were preachers and a few sisters. He always had work. His family attended the Baptist chapel as hers did. She knew exactly what the rest of the townspeople knew, nothing more.
She was astounded at the interest of a man who was practically a stranger. Her eyes opened wide as if to absorb the impossible. Her shoulders pushed back and without knowing it she stood straighter. For the sake of respect her father would relinquish a great deal in giving her away. How would he manage business and family without her? And from her own point of view, was respect for her and her family so desperately wanted that she chose to ignore her argument against marriage? Children would add endless toil to her days. No one need tell her so. Howsoever, Lenore put aside any thought of obstacles. She saw a burst of light and in one twinkle of a star she agreed to marry John Argyle.