“Good day Uncle”
“Felicity, my dear. What a delight. I was just about to take a stroll to the rose gardens; are you fatigued by the journey or would you care to accompany me? The scent is particularly delightful at this time of day”
“Excellent idea Uncle Robert”
So began the most exciting part of my life. I should introduce myself. Lord Robert Perception Devises of Cordley; that’s my full name and title. I’m the second son of the 15th Baron Cordley. My younger brother died fighting the Waziris, he figures little in this narrative not because he was unloved; if anything he was the more lovable of the three of us brothers, but his proclivities meant he was never likely to begat an heir and since he died several years ago that permanently put paid to any speculation of his sexual preferences or his likelihood to overcome them.
My elder brother became Baron Cordley on the death of our father in 1809. He was always destined to inherit and we are an unusual family (as you will learn) in many ways, including how companionable we remained, even after our brother inherited the title, the estates and the money. Nigel joined the Royal Pioneers and volunteered to go to Waziristan. I joined the Duke of Borsetshires Own and fought (though I say so myself) with some distinction against the American Upstarts, the French, and (a lesser known contretemps, which so far has thankfully avoided the histories) the Swedes at Gulam. I retired two years ago as a full colonel and my brother gave me one of the rather ornate gatehouses to live in.
When Baron Richard died last year, I succeeded to the title as he had only sired a single girl child. The deeds of our estate and title were laid down by William Rufus. They clearly state that they may only be inherited by a male heir else they are resorbed by the crown. The story goes that William II was hunting when his horse went lame. He offered a title to the first person to give him a new horse and our ancestor was the first to come forward. Since he was fifty two at the time (a ripe age in those days, though as a fifty five year old myself I think it quite young now), William imposed some rules to the inheritance which he thought guaranteed it would be short-lived. Lord Robert (the first Baron Cordley) quickly made a match with a young, buxom serving girl who produced five fine sons before she expired before him of ‘the dropsy’ whatever that may be. So the line was established and flourished, waxed and waned through history.
That’s all the history you need.
“Uncle, you of course are aware of the limitations to the inheritance.” I nodded, it wasn’t a question, but some response seemed appropriate “I had some lawyers look at them, not the family ones, Baker, Strew and Gambit”
“Aren’t they rather, arrh, how to put it?”
“Pushy? Hungry for success? Yes, that’s why I consulted them. I thought they might see a way round the problem. Not to disinherit you, but to enable the line to continue”
“Nothing, the title can only be inherited by a legitimate male heir, and the lands follow the title”
“Uncle, you have to marry and have an heir”
“Easier stated than achieved. I’m not the best catch in the world. Who would have me?”
“True, no worthy first born daughters would look at you”
“Thank you my dear, don’t sugar the almond will you?”
“This is too important to beat round the bushes, we have to be blunt, and flush the game or lose the candle”
“An unusual mixed metaphor, but I know you have the family’s best interests at heart, continue”
“There are plenty of second and third daughters of good families who would welcome avoiding becoming governesses. Peter” (Peter is her husband, not the brightest, but good at business) “Peter says there are plenty of rich businessmen’s daughters who would welcome a title too”
“But how to find them”
“Well, don’t be angry. I have made some discrete enquiries”
“You mean about the children I begat abroad? I did think of looking for them but it is hopeless; they have been flung to the four winds by now”
“No uncle. I did wonder about those; but, as you say, they have vanished back into the melting pots of our empire I’m sorry to say. An exotic skinned heir might be just what the family needs to buck us up. No offence sir”
“None taken. It does seem that our ability to liaise with the opposing gender has weakened in the recent times; but, pray tell, what enquiries could you be meaning then?”
“I broached the subject with numerous families without being too explicit and found some candidates for your bride”
I could only listen in admiration. Felicity would have made an excellent Quartermaster General, she plans, she investigates, she plans some more.
“I narrowed it down to seven young ladies, all of good family, polite, well-bred and, I believe, of the type of looks that you prefer”
I wondered how she knew, I thought of myself as having eclectic tastes, a pretty face, good bosom, attractive behind and straight legs. A brain was not always required if the looks were above average. I have been known to avail myself of young ladies from the theatre on occasion; but they know how to avoid getting with child.
“So I have to choose between these seven?” I said
“Not exactly uncle. I hit a problem. How to decide if they would produce an heir? A male heir. Dear Ma and Pa only managed one, and that a girl. What if this happened again? I chanced upon a story in one of the Greek plays. Lysandria by Cleops. Do you know it?”
“I confess, my dear, soldiering does not leave much time for obscure classical writers. Enlighten me”
“Lysandria is one of four sisters. Before they were born, their father promises his daughter to the future king of Pimento. When he dies he has not said which daughter. They decide on a test, whoever can make the king happiest in bed in one night will be his bride.”
“Well, the rest is not important”
“What happens? You cannot leave such a delightful plot unexplained.”
“The king is overcome by his passions and on the fourth night he dies of overindulgence, leaving the kingdom to be ruled by the four girls; but that isn’t the part that gave me the idea. What if” and here she paused and smiled “what if the girls similarly allowed themselves for trial, so to speak. And the first one to become with child would become your wife?”
“Preposterous” I remonstrated, yet I knew that she was telling me this for a reason
“Five of the girls accepted, as did their mothers. In answer to your question, the one you haven’t asked, the fathers would agree if they knew; younger daughters are simply a drain on the resources to be invested in marrying the boys and older daughter well”
“Are you really serious?”
“With your permission the young ladies will arrive at your invitation in one month’s time. Ostensibly for discussions; but their mothers will all find last minute reasons why they cannot accompany their daughters. And their daughters will stay as long as needed”
“In your play the king dies”
“But you are tougher than that uncle. And even if you’re not,” she gave the most innocent of smiles “it would be a most pleasurable way to discover that fact would it not?”
I had to agree, a most interesting proposition. So one month later my lovely niece travelled up the drive from the lodge (for I gave her my old house when I inherited the mansion) to act as hostess for the young ‘contestants’. They arrived by carriage through the day, each bearing a letter from their mother explaining that they had been called away at the last minute. The girls looked variously nervous, enthused or bored. I was surprised by this last, a lady with beautiful long blonde hair, slim, well made and intelligent looking; but decidedly less than enthusiastic; still, as long as she’ll deal the cards I thought, I’ll play with the hand.
Felicity made the young women welcome and they were shown to their rooms, five rooms adjoining each other on the East Wing, a wing normally empty these days so no servants were occupied there. The girls would therefore be private during their stay.
It is a truism that, whether they are in the room or no, servants always know what the goings on in big house amount to, and the smiles from the female servants clearly showed that they were aware of what was afoot. One footman made so bold as to smirk and was dismissed immediately for lack of respect, when I heard I ensured he was re-employed but he had learned his lesson no doubt.
“Ladies” Felicity called them together in the Drawing Room. I know I should not, it was undignified, but I listened from the Library. The false door in the Drawing Room actually backs onto a small private room in the Library where some of the more special books and art are kept; including a cartoon by Leonardo De Vinci, one of Shakepeare’s plays in his own handwriting, a book of erotic pictures and the signed autobiography of Lady Lucinda “My life as a Harem Slave”. In that room it is easy to hear everything in the next room.
“Ladies, we all know why we, well, you, are here. My uncle needs an heir, and a wife; the first to be with child will marry him. I put your names in a hat and picked them out in order to allocate the rooms. Uncle will visit each in order, one per night.
.... There is more of this story ...