This account of my parents’ courtship is based on my mother’s extensive correspondence and diaries. I give my thanks to Miss Wallace and Mrs. Robert Whitehead for providing copies of her letters in their possession. The story is further enriched by many interviews with my mother, her relations, and my father, embroidered with as little imagination as possible. My parents were such a remarkably happy couple that they seemed destined for one another. Yet, their fates were not so assured, and certainly did not seem so to them at the time. I hope, Dear Reader, that this account will prove as entertaining and instructive for you as it was for my siblings.
Mrs. Lane Phillips
London, 1888, Wilcox & Sons, Publishers
Miss Otis Finds a New Home
Kitty had never shown any talent or inclination for patience. Most particularly now.
After weeks of fretful suspense, Kitty spied Uncle Tinsley’s coach through the parlour window and threw open the door for him. He was a tall, handsome, impeccably groomed man. His black hair had dimmed to grey, but he still possessed the penetrating dark eyes and black brows of his youth. His parents had named him Pericles, which suited his appearance perfectly. After he put off his hat and gloves, she greeted him warmly with a peck on the cheek.
Once they were seated in the parlour, Uncle Tinsley began with, “I have received an encouraging reply from an agent regarding Dixon Cottage. It is only sixteen miles to the west of here, situated between Threlkeld and Keswick. They offer it for sale complete with furnishings for seven hundred pounds. That is a bit dear for its size, but gives me hope that it is well fitted up. I have set an appointment for three days hence.”
“I have long dreamt of the day when I would manage my own household. But now that the necessity is thrust upon me, I find I don’t want it at all! I am grateful to be your ward, but I find it impossible to be happy about leaving the rectory,” Kitty replied.
Uncle Tinsley gently patted her hand, “It is far easier to be brave from the shelter of your parents’ loving guidance and much more difficult without it, eh? Do not be anxious, my dear. I do not fear for you, for you are a remarkably clever young woman and you still have me and Aunt Eliza for help.”
At the appointed hour, a sedate entourage of Kitty, Uncle Tinsley, and their servants, set out early on a bright, cold spring morning. Kitty and Uncle Tinsley isolated themselves in Papa’s conservative black coach drawn by Castor and Pollux teamed under Pike’s expert driving. The servants trailed behind in Uncle Tinsley’s equally conservative coach.
Kitty twisted the ends of her bonnet ribbons. “Well, Uncle, let us hope that Dixon Cottage suits. For if it does not, I do not know what is to become of Father and me. Although it will only be for three days, I am uneasy leaving him.”
Uncle Tinsley laced his hands together in his lap. “Biddle will take good care of Merit, so, I rate that as the least of my cares. I am more anxious about so great a burden being thrust onto your slender shoulders.”
Uncle Tinsley’s speech only served to remind Kitty of every painful feeling. She still needed considerable time alone to heal, preferably on her favourite mount, Othello. So, she avoided thinking about her situation unless she was alone and could give full vent to her feelings.
She attempted a light-hearted response. “Now, Uncle, you know I believe that with thrift, I shall be able to keep Othello and my wheelers, Pollux and Castor; which is the crux of the matter for me.”
Her uncle frowned, “My dear girl, even if you keep your horses, I worry for you. Oh, not the immediate housing problem, we shall solve that easily enough. But, I find it difficult to believe that you will achieve a respectable marriage, much less a brilliant match, without your mother sponsoring you for a London season. Do not give up hope ...”
“Give up hope?” Kitty interrupted, “Certainly not! I will not be in danger of spinsterhood for another five years, at least. Surely, in all that time we can contrive something.”
Their interest was then engaged by the wild beauties of the landscape. As they made their way west, the ground rose up from hills to high mountainous fells. The carriage rumbled across uncounted ancient stone bridges. The giant broad-shouldered peaks were spectacular - almost level at the top, with steep cliffs plunging into narrow valleys. Dark swaths of still-bare trees marched along the valleys and gave way to gorse and heather on the wind-swept tops. The sky was the deep blue only achieved at the roof of the world. Innumerable little streams wound their way through the valleys, some still frozen to glittering immobility.
The villages they passed through were laid out along the road. Squat buildings with brightly painted trim, hard by the cobbles, with steep thatched roofs designed to defeat the snow. Kitty, enchanted, exclaimed, “How charming!” or “How quaint!” Soon they arrived at the Horse and Farrierin Threlkeld, where they were to lodge for two nights before retracing their steps.
The innkeeper and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Brown, unused to trade from the Quality at that season, greeted them with enthusiasm. Mrs. Brown ushered Kitty and her abigail, Betsy Taylor, to their room. Kitty endeared herself by announcing, “Oh, how lovely. Taylor, you may have a bit of luncheon before unpacking my things.”
Taylor, who had been Kitty’s abigail for nearly seven years, said, “Aye, Miss. Jest let me shake out yer pink muslin, afore I go to kitchen.”
Mrs. Brown then ushered Kitty to the private dining room Uncle Tinsley had reserved. Mrs. Brown was well familiar with Dixon Cottage.
“Oh, aye, Miss, I know it well. Mr. Dixon built it when, Lord! I was but a wee lass. Mah sister kept house there for years. It has a fine prospect, but the lane to the property is sometimes impassable in winter. It was well-built, but Mr. Dixon let it decay as he got older, more’s the pity. His heirs have their own estates and no-one wants the place. Ah, here you are.”
Kitty said eagerly, “I should like to learn of the house from your sister. Is she near? Would you introduce her?”
Mrs. Brown chuckled, “Near? I should say so. She’s come to help me in kitchen since Mr. Dixon passed and is in this house now.”
Kitty’s stomach gave an audible growl, much to her chagrin.
Mrs. Brown smiled indulgently, “Tea and bread and butter’s out, and the rest’ll be along shortly. I’ll send mah widowed sister up, Mrs. Abernathy she is, when you’re done.”
As Mrs. Brown curtsied herself out of the room, Uncle arrived.
Kitty began, “Uncle, I made several important discoveries.”
Uncle Perry smiled and shook his head, “You are so like your mother.”
A servant entered with ham, pickles, boiled eggs, and dried fruit tarts. Once the girl had departed, they resumed their conversation.
“How so, sir? Everyone says I resemble my father.”
“With your brunette curls and dark eyes, you are assuredly your father’s daughter. But in mind and spirit, I hold you most resemble your mama. God pity the tradesman who tried to overcharge Mrs. Otis! Your father was a brilliant man, but not at all practical. It was your mother who managed the rectory with economy.”
Kitty’s eyes filled with tears, “Oh! Uncle, you cannot imagine what comfort these simple reminiscences afford me. No one – almost no one – I know wishes to speak of her for fear of giving me pain, or because they have no idea what to say. But these little stories of her are what I most particularly wish to hear.”
Mrs. Abernathy arrived shortly thereafter. She was tall, raw boned, and ruddy, with the first strands of silver showing in her brown hair. After a very productive half-hour interview, Kitty rented two hacks from the inn so she could explore the surrounding town. Kitty exchanged her pelisse for a more practical riding coat, Pike was mounted, and off they set.
Kitty discovered a tolerable milliner, implying there was enough trade from the Quality to warrant such a shop. She found a lovely ancient church and the road to the property. She also stopped downstairs at the pub where she discovered that Mr. Peale, the agent for Dixon Cottage, was known as a “sharp ‘un.” Three people advised her to get a good solicitor to examine any papers drawn up by Mr. Peale. Meanwhile, Mr. Tinsley also made pertinent inquiries about Threlkeld. They spent all evening exchanging their respective discoveries.
After an early and excellent breakfast, they set out to inspect the property. The agent, Mr. Robert Peale, was in his mid-twenties, sandy-haired, freckled and somewhat stout. He was pretentiously dressed in a startling green waistcoat.
He kept up a paean of praise for the village of Threlkeld to the east, the beauties of Keswick to the west. He described the house and its home farm in glowing terms. Kitty could barely restrain from rolling her eyes. Even Mr. Peale was hard pressed to extol the excellence of the interior after they startled some bats out of the library chimney, though.
Dixon Cottage, although smothered in weeds, was built of the native buff-coloured stone. It was less than half the size of the rectory, but was well proportioned with excellent prospects. Uncle Tinsley noticed the gravel approach was more weeds than gravel, the chimneys needed pointing up, three windows were broken, and an enterprising oak had sprung up through a crack in the front flagstones.
The trio returned to the Horse and Farrier, entered a private parlour and ordered tea. Uncle Perry and Kitty were seated, and Mr. Peale stood in eager attendance. Mr. Peale seemed somewhat flustered when Kitty, instead of Mr. Tinsley, began negotiations. “Mr. Peale, what is your principal expecting from the sale of the property?”
With his smile now more blinding than ever before, Mr. Peale made a slight bow. “Mah principal set the price at seven hundred pounds, entire, to include all the furnishings.”
“No doubt in ignorance of its true value!” Uncle Perry scowled.
“Aye, it has a bonnie prospect, and we’ve had many inquiries, sir.” Mr. Peale replied, deliberately misunderstanding him.
Uncle Perry leaned forward and tapped the table with his forefinger. “However, it is located between Threlkeld and Keswick, not in Grosvenor Square.”
Kitty turned to Mr. Peale with a mischievous smile, “How odd! It is widely known in town that Dixon Cottage has stood vacant for over two years, and no one else has been to see it.”
Mr. Peale’s smile became more fixed.
Uncle Perry turned to Kitty. “Dixon Cottage appears to be a property whose owner has set too optimistic a price, does it not?”
Kitty drew a pencil and small notes-book from her reticule and began figuring, “Yes, it certainly does. Upon my word, a reduction is required for the repairs. Mr. Tinsley, what do you think repairs will amount to?”
Eyes sparkling, lips twitching in a poorly suppressed smile, Uncle Perry responded, “Remember Kitty, whatever repairs you can see are accompanied by at least two others you cannot see. I advise you to set aside at least a hundred pounds for repairs.”
Mr. Peale interrupted, “Nae! Repairs will nae come to anything like a hundred pounds!”
Kitty ignored the interruption and went on pointedly, “Thank you, Uncle, I rely entirely upon your judgement in these matters.” Simultaneously excited and nervous, Kitty was determined to live up to Mother’s example.
She took a deep breath and turned back to Mr. Peale. “I do not wish to wound you, Mr. Peale, but you led me to believe the home farm consisted of twenty-four usable acres. However, with the steep bits and the boggy bottoms, there are less than twenty usable acres.” Kitty appealed to Uncle Perry, “Surely the discrepancy requires a reduction. Say, fifteen pounds per acre or sixty pounds. Does my calculation seem correct to you, Uncle?”
Mr. Peale’s smile became more wooden.
Uncle Perry reminded Kitty, “But you forgot the problem of the furnishings.”
Kitty smiled, “Whatever would I do without your sage advice, Uncle? From your description, the house was offered fully furnished. But, the best of the furnishings are gone.”
Mr. Peale went a little pink in the face. “But, nobody expects to find everything to their liking in a furnished house!”
Kitty’s voice became sarcastic, “Everything? The dining room has no sideboard, the library no desk, the bedrooms only have Dutch presses, not wardrobes. Most of the upholstered furnishings should be burned, and all the linens will be consigned to the fire. Whilst I never expected to find everything to my taste, I did expect to find it fully furnished. A farther fifty pounds will be necessary to provide furnishings.” Kitty’s palms began to sweat as she felt she was acting the shrew. But she also felt oppressed by the urgency of saving the settlements she inherited from Mama. So, she straightened her back and held her head high.
Uncle Perry shook his head, now openly amused. “No, my dear. I cannot quite agree with you. You should allow at least seventy pounds for furnishings. The kitchen ovens are in such poor repair that you need to install a modern closed stove. Does that not bring the total down to four hundred and seventy pounds?”
Kitty checked her numbers. “Yes, sir, it does. Howsoever, we forgot the chicken coop is a menace and must be torn down. Most of the fences and all the gates need repair. The well lost its roof, and no doubt the waters are fouled.”
Mr. Peale wrung his hands, “Nae, Miss! The water’s as clear and as sweet as can be, and there’s a pump for drawing off water to the beastie troughs.”
She smiled sweetly up at Mr. Peale, “Yes? Well, I will only deduct fifty pounds for those repairs. But, there is also the matter of the road which I have on good authority is often impassable in winter. That should reduce the value of the property a farther one hundred pounds. That brings the total to three hundred twenty pounds. Do you agree, Uncle?”
Mr. Peale, quite red in the face, was reduced to spluttering. “Impassable! But...but, Miss, if ye like the cottage so little, are ye even gon’ nae make an offer?”
Uncle Perry intervened, “Oh, yes, my niece cannot resist a bargain. And a bargain this must be if you are to sell it to anyone in its current state.”
Mr. Peale went pale about the mouth. “But, sir, Ah can nae present mah principal with such a paltry offer!”
Kitty realised that beneath the bluster, Mr. Peale was very close to panic. Seized by compassion, she said “Very well, Mr. Peale, I do not wish to be unjust.”
Uncle Perry smiled proudly at Kitty, “Vicar’s daughter.”
Kitty returned his smile, “Yes, indeed. We shall add thirty pounds to the offer price. Do you approve of offering three hundred fifty pounds for Dixon Cottage, then, Mr. Tinsley?”
Her uncle considered carefully. “Upon my word, that seems a fair figure to both parties.”
Mr. Peale’s brows shot up, “To both parties? How is that fair to mah principal, sir?”
Uncle Perry adopted his most authoritative solicitor voice. “Your principal will have sold Dixon Cottage instead of letting it decay until it is impossible to sell. I believe, on good authority, the heirs wish to be shot of it at whatever price. You should present this offer. After all, your principal may still choose to reject it or make a counter offer.”
Mr. Peale ran his hands through his hair and then resumed wringing them. “What a ramshackle agent mah principal will think me if I bring him this offer.”
Uncle Perry drew out five ten-pound notes and laid them on the table. “Not at all, Mr. Peale. It is not your fault that the value has fallen so far. Produce a receipt for the fifty pounds and draft an offer for the property for the remaining three hundred pounds, entire. I shall sign it today, so you may post it to your principal straightaway.”
Apparently mesmerized by the money, Mr. Peale nodded mute agreement. When he had written out and handed the receipt to Mr. Tinsley, he bowed himself out of the room.
With a chuckle, Uncle Perry turned to Kitty, “Just like your mother!”
Kitty laughed, alive to the full force of the compliment.
He grinned, “If you are as thrifty restoring the cottage as you were buying it, your income will exceed five hundred pounds per year. And that’s not including any profits from the home farm. With half the house and fewer staff to support, you shall be quite plump in the purse, my dear.”
Mr. Peale returned with an offer letter that evening. Uncle Tinsley corrected the document so that the three hundred fifty pounds included all agent’s fees and transfer stamp taxes. He signed it and bade Mr. Peale a polite adieu. The next morning, the entourage arrived back at Crosthwaite and awaited developments.