Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chapter 3

     The years flew by and when rumors of another war with America pressed his ears he was half shocked and half delighted by the arrival of a letter from Catherine McDonald. Any news from Catherine was not to be mused but regarded with the utmost seriousness.
The letter was presented on a silver tray by his secretariat.
"What is this hand-writing?" He asked curiously.
"A lady from Charleston, my lord," Potts said cautiously, aware of the earl's clandestiny and insistance upon privacy.
"No need to wait. I shall draft a response later," he said shooing Potts away with fingers adorned in diamonds and rubies.
Sitting alone in his morning room, a place of privacy and solace, he gingerly opened the letter and flattened it across his writing table. For a moment, though, he paused to remember her face, the opague doll-like skin and large brown eyes. Catherine Winship. The one woman with whom he would have had a serious affair, had she agreed.
"Lord Manigault," she wrote. What? Do Americans not understand Engliish titles and rank? "As you hath no doubt heard, we are once again at war with Great Britain and the harbor in Charleston is in danger of being attacked. In the interest of safeguarding our property, my husband is a colonel in the militia and spends much time away from home. Too, our crops wilt in the fields for want of a vessel to get through the lines." The view of british man o-war ships in the Charleston harbor flashed in his mind. Although he thought so at the time, those days were of no hardship to him then. After all, he'd hob-nobbed with the soldiers, partied with the officers and adopted the political views of the british. During that blockage it was the local citizens who'd suffered a great loss of wealth. What did that matter to him? He had never felt ashamed or had a remorseful moment over it. He read on. "Several years hence my son Roderick chose to pursue his academic studies at Oxford University for which purpose my husband established a stipend to pay his necessities through our London factor, Mr. Biggers. Because of the current crisis, he is no longer able to send the stipend. Thereore, Roderick will of necessity quit the university. His last letter to me expressed a desire to remain abroad and because of the war my husband agrees. I write this letter for this reason, to ask you to kindly employ Roderick at some useful task at Abergenny. Your obedient servant, Catherine McDonald."
Hmmm, so the boy is at least twenty years of age and having attained a love for the britons, cared not to return to his roots. The earl placed a clean parchment on the table and dipped his quill into an inkwell. His letter was addressed to the dean of Oxford. He would request that the dean send three students to Abergenny for an interview. When he had finishing writing the dean, he crumbled up Catheriine's letter and put it into a trash basket under his table.
"Mr. Potts, do not forget to burn this trash in the fire," he said pointing to basket. Potts swept up the basket and burned Catherine's letter over the logs. His master had a fettish for the daily burning of trash. He had been sworn to secrecy in the earl's affairs and had learned to act quickly and never to reveal the name of the earl's friends.
"Here is a letter you should deliver to the dean of the College of Oxford. He will show you a list of students having high grades. Select three from that list and interview them yourself. Make certain that one of them is Roderick McDonald and that you select him."
"Shall I persuade master McDonald to accompany me to Abergenny?"
"Yes, and do not leave Oxford until you hath his trunk in tow."
Mr. Potts had been hired specifically to be privy to the earl's personal affairs. This assignment like so many others was secretive and required the utmost finesse and discretion. He was to pretend that he was making a selection from three students when he was sent after one person. He had an idea that Roderick McDonald would play an important part in the affairs of Abergenny, but never guessed how the young man would play such an integral part in his own life. He seemed admirably polite and possessed the American manners of the handshake rather than the bow. Americans had little regard for the nobility and Potts wondered if he would afford the earl his proper respect.
Mr. Potts delivered Roderick into the little parlor and secured the double-doors behind him. The the earl knew at once that the young whelp with a thick head of red hair and flashing blue eyes was the son of Angus. The boy was tall and lean, several heads above his father, but he had that same electric energy and zest for life.
     Roderick was led through several corridors of dark oak wood and single candelabras attached to the walls before reaching the earl's plush study. His inquisitive eyes darted quickly about the room, noticing an excessive display of carvings of the Neville crest on the furniture and along the book shelves.  Roderick figured that the whole of the English law library was contained on those shelves.  The rafters in the ceiling, stone fireplace and wooden walls and floors reminded him of an old Irish solar where the warriors gathered to eat and drink after battle.
     The earl himself rested his back against the tall back of an ornately carved chair with a red velvet seat, a distinctive piece from an earlier era.  His fingers were stretched across the cushioned arms,   laden with a garish selection of garnet and ruby rings emeshed with diamond settings.  His fingernails were manicured.  He wore a satin morning coat wrapped at the neck with a purple sash which accentuated his dark brown eyes and coal black hair. 
     "We are creatures of tradition," the earl said as Roderick absorbed the makings of the room.
      Roderick bowed politely.  "Yes, your lordship."
     "One does not alter the past by changing its style. It is as much a part of us now as ever.  That is what I believe."
     "Yes sir."
     "Thus Abergenny operates as a fiefdom with a substantial estate of tenants whose roots are planted as deeply as the first earl Neville and whose traditon it is to farm the land.  When there is drought or too much rain or illness on the part of tenant then he produces very little which renders him unable to pay his rent.  One does not remedy the situation by removing the tenant of his inherited tenure. There is a delicate skill in the management of such situations but my overseer is old and bears watching."
     "Would that be my employment, sir?"
     "Allow me to finish.  You cannot imagine in your most posterous dreams how much tedium is required in this duty.  I personally spend long hours each day laboring over ancient accounting practices. The whole system needs restructuring."
     "I am trained in bookkeeping with a degree in literature and the arts. Also, I can speak french," Roderick said proudly.
     "Hmmm, never mind the french as the gordy welsh accent is beyond anything which can be refined.  Do you think that you can forget your American roots and emesh yourself in old traditions?"
     "You are asking if I can accept this way of life?"
     "I ask because England is in but another war with your country and you may resent that fact. How do you feel about it?"
     "Well, sir, my formitive years were spent in the boarding school of the academy of Charleston and then my father sent me to Oxford University that I might manage his plantation afterwards. I am already enmeshed in the old ways. And as you say, the war is meddlesome and preventing me from further study and returning home."
     The earl stood to his feet and taking the silver-tipped cane lying beside his chair hobbled across the room to the fireplace.  The old dueling injury had taken its toll with the years.  He appeared older than he actually was and vulnerable.  "This old house can be chilly," he said warming his hands over a banked fire.  For a few moments, he was quiet. Roderick was having regrets over his little speech.
     "I pray that I have not offended your lordship."
     "Oh no, I was only recalling the many occasions that I found myself adjusting to change.  You see, I was a British citizen in your country at the time of the American Revolution."  Roderick seemed confused.  "Tis a rather long tale that I shall not bore you with.  Suffice it to reveal that I was not always the earl of Abergenny and came into this circumstance due to my wife's inheritance. That, too, can change.  Yes, my own situation seems to be in a constant state of change and adjustment, something I learned to accept.."
     Roderick nodded.  "Should my employment not be permanent due to peculiar circumstances, I will adjust to that, sir."
     The earl's lips curled upward in an effort to smile.  "Your discretion in all things must be absolute."
     Mr. Potts entered the room and emptied a full trash basket onto the fire.  "May I introduce Mr. Potts.  He is my personal secretariat and privy to my personal affairs.  You will be sharing confidences.  Follow his discretionary lead because he knows the art of silence."
     Potts bowed politely and made his exit.
     "Abergenny is on solid grounds, but your charge is to help me to establish a private investment account with Biggers & Company, one of the largest factoring companies in London."
      Roderick scratched his head.  "I believe that is who handles my father's factoring."
     "Indeed! My information is that Ashley Loche is one of Mr. Bigger's largest accounts. That is one of the reasons that you were selected, my boy.  Your influence should have a free hand there."
      Roderick seemed satisfied but not his curiosity.  In the months which followed he would hear of an intricately woven plan to hoard money.

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