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Gentlemen of Gloucestershire: Chapter 4

September 19, 2021 07:45PM
Henry had altogether forgotten the absence of the cook until reminded by Catherine, and failed to ascertain an explanation before she excused herself to assist their housekeeper. It was certainly good she had some employment, but he could not help resenting the cause: to be forced to continue conversation with his brother without more than a dozen words shared with his wife was not how Henry had anticipated the close of his day. "I trust our father continues in good health," he exerted himself to offer this civility, more out of duty than any real concern.

"As ever: perfectly good health. All except his memory, perhaps, but that has been faulty for years. The more forgotten of him as by him, the better." Frederick spoke with as little interest, if more asperity than the question should have inspired. Before the subject could be pursued further, he took up a book and examined it, asking with barely veiled contempt whether his brother was still as devoted to novels as before his marriage.

"Yes, we both enjoy reading. As you can see, there is little else to do. It is fairly routine for us to close every day with lengthy study." Here perhaps Henry was guilty of some deception, for a man reading a lady’s favourite story as she rapturously listened, especially in the confines of the bedchamber, might not be described as study in the usual manner. But it was misdirection rather than an outright lie, and he enjoyed a clear conscience while adding, "It is mostly that sort of thing, as Mrs. Tilney is very fond of them. Do you wish a copy for yourself?"

"Not a jot. How insufferable you must find it all."

"Oh, we are very content with our private, plebeian little home."

Again, we must forgive Henry for not being altogether truthful with his guest, as there were many concerns in the parish that could make the parsonage anything but retiring. But again, it was at best a slight exaggeration, and indeed there are few who would protest taking humility too far.

As bottle and bowl alike were depleted, and the chill grew more pronounced, Henry recommended they repair to the more easily heated study. There he was further aggrieved to find his preferred chair missing. Instead he made do with a seat too low and short to accommodate his height, while Frederick lounged by the fire in perfect ease. This change in setting redirected the latter's speech, as he inquired whether Mrs. Tilney was altogether satisfied with her surroundings. "It is not every lady who will submit to a retired life away from society, with no assemblies or frippery. You can never satisfy a woman with books alone."

Admittedly still adjusting to marriage, Henry could have lectured his brother on the merits of reading as a means to enliven rather than dull a couple's appreciation for each other. Certainly his Catherine, fond as she was of heroics and mock dangers, thought nothing of whiling away the time with near any work so long as it contained some Gothic or comic sensibility. A husband who shared those pleasures might gain the privilege of many others besides. Instead he allowed himself the magnanimity of greater experience, revelled that he was privy to knowledge quite lost on his brother, and replied with feigned degradation, "But you are thinking of ladies from town. My wife is of country stock, and fitted by nature as well as inclination to these environs."

"A singular thing to find in Bath, of all places. Does she never desire to go back?"

"It has not been mentioned."

"You cannot both wish to waste your life here all the time."

"It is no hardship. Duty after all is its own reward, and the calling of our lives must justify any pains. Why, there is a pretty set of sermons with that theme. Do pick it up, and we may find some quotations on the subject."

It may be unsurprising his brother could not distinguish which book Henry gestured to, for while there were several such volumes most were little used and crammed along the bottom shelf long ago. This fact bore witness against his ever poaching another's words from the pulpit, and if perhaps his motives were not so noble, must at least offer a just reproof to any accusation of neglect. Frederick did not bother to search at all. "Is there nothing else to drink?"

"I am afraid not: unless you would like some of the passed over communion?"


There was little to be said in answer to this exclamation, and so Henry did not attempt it. Instead he took up a newspaper, silently offering the other man part of it, and was rewarded for his generosity to pour over the dullest of headlines and even more tiresome parliamentary decisions. These subjects were enough to produce a lengthy quietude, until Frederick tossed his scant pages aside with an oath and took to pacing. "Fools! A wonder the war is not lost altogether and the Frogs encamped at Piccadilly."

Outbursts regarding the competence of military governance were too common at Northanger Abbey to discomfit Henry. Had his own reading material been more interesting he might have ignored this one altogether, and only looked up to gauge whether a quip or consolation would be more readily accepted. He was surprised to observe a great perturbation of spirits: Frederick was a capable soldier and Henry supposed as dutiful an officer as any, but usually displayed none of the general's fierce preoccupation with the honour of the service when on leave. Concerned in spite of himself, he asked after the latest news from the Continent.

"It is not worth discussing: all stuff and nonsense, every pretend expert nattering about tactics they are completely ignorant of. Small wonder when our own generals are as stupid."

These words caused Henry to stiffen instinctively, despite the closest individual retired from those ranks not being present to hear them. Complaints about the interference of Parliament and princes might be made freely in their ancestral home, and the navy was always fair game, but insults to serving officers was a taboo broken at one's peril. Before he could think of a way to turn the conversation, his brother broke off whatever tirade had been brewing and instead demanded with boyish petulance, "What can be taking them so long?"

"Our cook is not in," Henry answered in some distraction, and though he had wondered the same, was too caught up with his present musings to spare much thought on the subject. His chief concern now was to either temper Frederick's expectation of a table that must be far below his usual fare, or failing that to send him away ere he could vent his spleen on anyone else. "She has been hard at work in the garden; and with few luxuries in the village we may have naught but vegetables."

Here Henry erred into a complete untruth. Mrs. Poole would have been ashamed to hear the rector slander her work, as she was proud to keep the parsonage well provisioned, and there was always some game to be had. The proof of his falsehood was eventually shown when they were at last called in to eat, for there was good meaty stew, thick toast, and an apple custard with sauce ever so nicely arranged. It was quite a triumph for a young wife—now appearing in one of her finer gowns—who had little time or help to prepare, a feat which demanded Henry compliment her ingenuity even as he watched Frederick in wary anticipation.

Instead the man was all smiles at the sight, especially when he discovered glasses of sherry which Henry had quite forgotten. "What fine work, my dear sister, I congratulate you. To hear my brother talk there was nothing to serve, though his ignorance is not surprising. I am afraid he has always been too caught up in his own absurdities. How little marriage appears to have changed you Henry." Rather than take his own seat, Frederick gallantly lead Catherine to a setting. "But how well it becomes you, madam."

She said nothing, only looked forlornly down into her napkin, while Henry took his own chair and pointedly brought up his hands to pray. This occupation normally occupied very little time ahead of a meal with the Tilneys, parsonage or no. Nonetheless it was a ponderous affair that evening, one to make certain Oxford divinity masters proud, and was cut short not for Henry running out of words but his comprehension that Frederick had already begun eating. He surrendered an "Amen," and lifted his eyes to behold his wife staring at him in bewilderment and his brother already pouring another glass for himself. Henry girded his loins, took up his spoon, and endeavoured to enjoy the food she had worked so hard to serve.

Dinner was a noxious affair and mostly eaten by Frederick, who attacked the table with the ferocity of two soldiers. Henry abandoned what little he could salvage from the onslaught to Catherine who, though looking most wretchedly, appeared to have as little appetite as himself. There was none of that conversation as usually filled their dining room. The few words exchanged were devoid of either wit or grace; rather, Henry strove to shield Catherine from comment, a task made the more difficult as Frederick continued to direct nearly all his remarks in her direction. It was a constant stream of empty platitudes and sly conjectures perfectly designed for entertaining in town, but which ill suited the small parlour.

"And Henry never has cared for mutton, you know, though our father tried to ease him into it. No sheep for him, what?" Frederick actually whistled, a practice absolutely forbidden at said father's table. "Funny his attracting one himself. Or are you not a lamb at all?"

Catherine suddenly looked up with the first sign of animation displayed since the meal began. "Oh, the sheep! Henry, I forgot to tell you, Will and Mrs. Poole had to assist getting the sheep back in." Remembering their companion she blushed before continuing, "I am sure they meant to return by now, but I had given them leave to remain as long as they were needed. It may perhaps be very late before they finish searching and so I think it likely they will stay the night with family."

Such news was more than welcome, and Henry latched onto the subject with the alacrity of a drowning man. "So the pen has come down yet again? I am sorry to hear it. And will be sorry to hear of it again at the next parish meeting."

"Do you mean from Mr. Greenly?"

"Who else? I am sure he already has numerous improvements planned to dazzle myself and the clerk. Between his recommendations and Mr. Wilcox's complaints I expect to be wooed with zealous constancy well ahead of the date."

"I congratulate Mrs. Tilney for tolerating such rivals for her affections," Frederick interrupted, throwing a discordant note between them. "I hope she enjoys the same sport? Geese and ganders and all."

"I am sure I do not take your meaning," Catherine replied, a hint of her own indignation rising above her disquietude. "But perhaps we should not discuss business of which you are wholly ignorant."

Anyone else would have meant the words as a bold reproach; Henry still admired the set-down, artless and unintended as it was. "Yes, we should avoid delving too far into our own simple affairs," he said, laying as lofty tone upon the words as possible. "They are not deep enough for our guest to penetrate." He was gratified to observe a small part of his wife's natural amusement return; she looked almost ready to smile.

This expression changed to alarm as she murmured an exclamation, shifting her chair back so quickly Henry nearly leapt from his own to steady it. "What is the matter?"

She stared at Frederick rather than make a reply, who offered her the most exaggerated of bows. "Forgive my clumsiness. I am not used to so small a table." He raised his near empty glass in salute. "I hope I have not trod your slippers too hard."

Turning back to Catherine, Henry was just in time to see her wipe a few tears away before answering that her shoes were unharmed. He rightly surmised she would only give positive intelligence to any further inquiries and keep her pains private, out of misplaced appreciation for familial company. The sight of his wife beset, his brother gloating, and his dinner gone put Henry out of what little patience he had left, causing him to stand abruptly. "Captain Tilney, I would speak to you in the study." His tone brooked no argument.

Fredrick ignored him at first; but as Henry refused to give way and there was nothing left to consume without picking from the others' plates, he at last rose as well. "Of course, Mister Tilney," he returned formally, and bowed to their hostess as she likewise stood. "My thanks, fair Catherine, for sharing your abundant bounty with me."

"The study, sir," Henry repeated, and refused to move until Fredrick left the table. He did not trust himself even to spare a glance at Catherine before marching after, anger licking at his heels.

"Come to read me my prayers?" Frederick asked from an indolent sprawl.

"Come to explain matters." Henry stood before him, hands gripped behind his back, erect as a young seminarian before his superiors. "You may go where you wish and harass any other of your acquaintance, but you will not lay hands or boots on Mrs. Tilney again."

Frederick sported a foolish grin at this ultimatum. "Oh? Upset are we?"

"You might remember what happened when another of our family treated my wife without respect. Have a care, and remember that you are not only of less concern to me than our father, but are in my own house besides."

"Your house? I had thought it was the parish’s. Certainly with all those supplicants I had supposed there was little space for intimacy, your parishioners might not appreciate the distraction."

"Why not say what you are really about and have done with it?" Henry demanded, tired of losing a battle of wits to a man well beyond three sheets to the wind. "And do not claim it is to play the dandy in the parlour, for we both know your only interest in Mrs. Tilney is the degree to which you think it will vex me."

"Perhaps you are mistaken."

"If I am, I shall pay you the wager here and now, gladly, if you will only explain what drove you to seek relief here. Just how much have you lost, or what creditor are you hiding from?"

"None. I am free as a bird, free as your hens. No one has any claim on me." Frederick suddenly sprang up with ferocity, staring down at Henry with all the height of a cavalry charge. "I hide from no man."

"If you expect me to believe that, you are a greater fool than I take you for now." Henry was beyond quieting, beyond quelling, and well beyond caution. "But I shall not beg for the chance to pay your way. Keep your secrets. Only leave this house and take them with you."

"I will not be ordered by you!" Frederick's manner was no longer that of the foolish wag, and his drink appeared to have finally caught up with him as he stumbled forward. "You've no concept of command, none—by god, no one in the whole country does. The best are gone, rammed and shot through the lines, honour bought and paid in blood."

It was as if Falstaff had suddenly launched into the Saint Crispin's Day speech instead of Prince Hal, a transition so unexpected that Henry's ire cooled somewhat in confusion. "And this is your complaint: that you are spared slaughter, and do not get the glory of adding to it?"

Even in liquor Frederick was able to strike an imposing figure, his boots striking forcefully against the floor as he spoke with violent agitation. "The devil take you! and the Duke of York, and his whole staff besides, they should all be hanged for that strategy, if it can be called such, I am sure they did not even ask whether it was sound." He came to rest by the mantelpiece, eyes lit as much by passion as the fire, and spoke with quiet fury: "He would not have tolerated it, were it his own command."

There was no need to question who had incited this degree of vehemence. Though the particulars were still a mystery, Henry guessed that father and son must have quarrelled over whatever had prevented the younger from joining in this latest action. It was a better excuse for his behaviour than mere avarice, if lacking in full justification. "Your concern does you credit, though I think writing to your men a better course of action than recreating the skirmish here."

Frederick appeared incensed by the suggestion rather than appeased; his answer was to turn smartly on his heels, knocking over a chair and sending newsprint flapping around the room and onto his own person. It was so comical a sight that Henry—more given to mirth than wrath—felt his senses returning, and not altogether keeping laughter out of his tone, offered his assistance.

Frederick pushed away and kicked the mess dangerously close to the fireplace, shouting a throaty oath. "D—n your sympathy. I'm off." He flung the door open, revealing a startled Catherine, then pushed past her, the gallant flirt vanished. Henry was alarmed to observe his unsteady gait, the more so as Catherine told him a gale had begun in earnest. "Frederick, perhaps you had best wait—" he began, only to be cut off by the front door slamming.

"Is it safe?" Catherine inquired wonderingly.

"I fancy not," Henry answered, seizing his coat and running after his brother. He found him at the stable as the man struggled to get his own horse out. "Frederick, please, do not be a fool: tarry a while longer and see whether it shall worsen."

"I have ridden in worse," came the curt reply.

"But there is no need to risk it," Henry cajoled, as earnest in preventing his brother's departure as he had earlier encouraged it. Frederick at last mounted, stupidly blinking a moment, which allowed Henry to catch the harness. "Come back inside: we might discuss the war further, you could tell me of this engagement or whatever else you like."

He had meant this offer as bait for the hook, but the trout shook him off and laughed wildly at the lashing gusts. "Pah! Nothing of any concern. We'd eat this for breakfast in Portugal."

"But we are in England!" Henry reached again but was too late. Frederick had already bounded away, his very English horse obediently racing into the wind.

Accidents happen: I meant for this chapter to go up as a draft on AO3, but published it instead. Not wishing any of my readers to get left out, I decided to post it here a day early too. Look for Chapter 5 to go up tomorrow morning, along with more bonus content on my blog.

Gentlemen of Gloucestershire: Chapter 4

MichelleRWSeptember 19, 2021 07:45PM

Re: Gentlemen of Gloucestershire: Chapter 4

Alicia MOctober 12, 2021 07:11PM

Re: Gentlemen of Gloucestershire: Chapter 4

MichelleRWOctober 13, 2021 12:10AM

Re: Gentlemen of Gloucestershire: Chapter 4

Alicia MOctober 13, 2021 03:43AM

Re: Gentlemen of Gloucestershire: Chapter 4

MichelleRWOctober 13, 2021 03:56AM

Re: Gentlemen of Gloucestershire: Chapter 4

Shannon KSeptember 20, 2021 02:40AM

Re: Gentlemen of Gloucestershire: Chapter 4

MichelleRWSeptember 20, 2021 11:32AM


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