Monthly Archives: September 2020

Letters from Armorica- Miss Willoughby (24 February 37 AF)

First Letter

The Elms, Wickshire, Cumbria

23 December 1014

My dearest cousin Armand,

I have had a triumph this week!

No, the carriage is not yet ready; or, rather, it is ready but the team is not. It seems that horses truly are scarce in Wickshire, or at least horses of the appropriate sort for drawing a carriage; for we might find any number of stout draft horses suitable for drawing haywains and beer wagons. Blightwell tells me that Father has purchased for me a set of matched bays, respectable though not flashy, and will be sending them down with Edward and a coachman "as soon as the weather permits." Considering the time of year, the weather, and Edward, I am practicing patience.

No, the triumph is that this past Thursday was a fine midwinter day, cool but clear, and I happened to capture Blightwell on the verge of driving out to Stourton on estate business. Blightwell has nothing so grand as a carriage, but must make shift with a small cart; but the cart has quite enough room for two, and so, after much browbeating, I compelled him to take me along.

"I shan't be able to escort you about, Miss Amelia," he told me.

"Nor shall I expect you to. Will be you be carrying goods in the back of the cart?"

"Not today, Miss Amelia. It is market day, but everything will be delivered."

I had known quite well that it was market day, and that Blightwell was too grand a personage to cart his own groceries. "Then Miss Derby can be seated quite comfortably on an overturned basket in the back of the cart. For, as I am sure you know, I do so wish to behave with all propriety."

As it happens, my dear cousin, Miss Derby was standing nearby, basket in hand, for I had made my plans most carefully.

"But the cart isn't suitable, Miss—"

"A fact I will be sure to mention to my Father when I inquire as to Edward's delay in bringing my team to Wickshire."

"Very well, miss."

Blightwell is a good man, truly; he doesn't wish to disoblige me, though I feel sure he would prefer it if I were in Yorke where I belong.

And so I was able to go to Stourton! A small thing, I know, but how grand it was!

Blightwell stopped the cart at The King's Scones which name, so he informed me, dates back to when some Cumbrian king of diminished memory spent the night in Stourton some centuries past; and while he was arranging for his horse to be fed and groomed, Miss Derby and I ventured out into the market square.

Truly there was not much for sale, harvest being past. I bought a supply of thread and a paper of needles, for I find that walking out in the country is hard on my walking dresses, much harder than my promenade in the Park ever was; for the only harm my apparel ever took in the Park was the turned up noses of some of my less favored acquaintance. I also looked for a length of cloth with which to make up a new dress, but found nothing I cared for. How does your Amelie make do, Armand? Surely she does not wear homespun?

I confess I also purchased a jam tart for myself, and another for Miss Derby, something I would never have done in the open air in Yorke. But then, the air is so much more sparkling here in Wickshire. Truly, I would not have credited it.

But I did not come to the market for the needles, or the pins, or the spools of thread, or my new thimble, or even for the jam tarts, but to see and be seen. My acquaintance is not wide enough for me to be greeted by anyone but the stallholders I patronized; but alas, there will be time for my acquaintance to increase, and I wish to be known here, Armand. I willnot be that poor ruined lass who is being hidden away at The Elms, whatever the Grimsbys may think!

So I took a turn around the market square, and then proceeded down the high street, nodding at the ladies I passed and outwardly ignoring the officers of the 2nd Hussars in their blue coats—for none of them were Lieutenant Pertwee, the only one of their number I might deign to speak to.

And then, blessed day, I came face to face with Mrs. Willoughby, the squire's wife, and her daughter, followed by a footman.

Miss Willoughby smiled at me, but deferred to her mother, who greeted me. "Why, Miss Montjoy, I am glad to see you abroad," she said. "I have been remiss, for I meant to have you to tea last week. Wednesday, perhaps?"

"I have no carriage as yet, Mrs. Willoughby," I said, taking care to smile ruefully.

"Tosh," she said. "I shall send ours. Look for it on Friday afternoon!"

And that, my dear Armand, is the Squire's wife in a nutshell. Stout, good-hearted (or so I believe), and a force of nature, arranging the surrounding countryside to suit herself.

But she was not done. "Now, Jane," she said to her daughter, "I must attend the market; but if you wish you may make take a turn around the village with Miss Montjoy and her abigail. I shall be quite all right with Porter, here."

"Yes, mother," she said, dutifully, to her mother's rapidly retreating back, and then to me, "It is chill today, Miss Montjoy, isn't it. Would you care for some tea?"

"Indeed I would, Miss Willoughby," I said warmly.

"There is a shop nearby," she said, coming to my side and taking my arm.

Soon we were seated in a small teashop, nothing like what that phrase would mean in Yorke, but snug enough for all that, with Miss Derby sitting at a separate table some yards away. Have you ever been in a teashop in Yorke, Armand? I suspect you have not. They are one of the few places where ladies can sit down together in public for a tête-à-tête. We were shortly served with tea and scones, though not, I hope, the King's scones.

"I am so glad to have found you, Miss Montjoy," she said, "for I have been longing to speaking with you privately. Mother is all very well, but she does tend to fill a room, rather."

"And I you," I agreed, not presuming to comment on her female parent. "For the last weeks I have had no society but that of the Grimsbys."

"None at all? Why, you must be quite cross!"

"Not at present, Miss Willoughby, not at present."

She smiled over her tea. "Jane, please. You must call me Jane."

"And I am Amelia," I said, and she nodded, and there we were, in a united front against the Grimsbys of the world! Never let it be said, my dear cousin, that Mrs. Grimsby has never done me a kindness!

We chatted for some time, of this and that—of things I am sure I would never wish to bother you with, cousin—and she was shocked when she learned the very limited span of my acquaintance here.

"We shall have to have a ball," she said. "It is the only thing. We've not had one at Stourness in ages, and surely the Grimsbys will never throw one." She looked apologetically at me. "I am sure it will be a simple affair by your standards, nothing like Harrison House."

"It will be quite good enough for me, I am sure," I said stoutly. "And let me tell you a few things about Harrison House!"

I shan't bore you with the rest of our conversation; but may I say I am quite looking forward to tea on Friday?

Your surprisingly cheerful cousin,

Amelia

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Comedy and Siegecraft

Author K. J. Parker (also known as Tom Holt) has two books out about a siege of a thinly disguised fantasy Constantinople. The Robur Empire is made of up of two kinds of people: the Robur, and everyone else. But most of the residents of the Empire are “everyone else”, and most of the folks who enlist in the army are “everyone else”, and one of their leaders, Ogus, has had enough. He’s subverted the provincial armies and taken over the entire empire…except for the City.

That description makes it sound like Ogus is the hero; which he ain’t.

In Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, the Colonel of the Imperial Regiment of Engineers, a milkface named Ornhas, is the senior officer left in the City when the besieging army arrives—because everyone else, from the emperor’s top aide on down, has fled. He’s faced with defending the city for the Robur against Ogus—his childhood friend, with whom he mostly agrees—because it’s his job.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It concerns the seventh year of the siege in which Notker, a playwright, actor, and mimic of important people, is forced to stand in for the Hero of the Siege (who has just been killed by an enemy bombardment) and ends up being made emperor.

Both of these books are intended to be funny in an observational sort of guy-stuck-riding-the-tiger kind of way. I found them interesting, not usually all that funny, and more than a little tedious in spots, but I also got the feeling that Parker had done his research about Constantinople, history, and siegecraft. This is supposedly a fantasy world, but there a none of the trappings of fantasy beyond a bunch of made up names and peoples, all of which have a greco-roman sound. Even the religion of the Robur, supposedly the worship of the Invincible Sun, is a thinly disguised Christianity.

So…not sorry I read them, because history geek; but not firing on all cylinders as humorous fantasy either. Which, when I got to the end of the second and discovered that K.J. Parker is a pseudonym for Tom Holt, surprises me not at all.

Letters from Armorica- Tea with the Grimsbys (17 February 37 AF)

First Letter

The Elms, Wickshire, Cumbria

16 December 1014

My dearest cousin Armand,

Today I once again attained the peak of the social whirl here in Wickshire, at least I have so far experienced it: I attended tea at the Grimsbys.

No, perhaps that is too hard of me. The true peak is tea with Miss Willoughby at Stourness, but that is a rare treat: for I still have no carriage. I am assured—Blightwell assures me—that the restoration of the family equipage is proceeding apace, and that we will soon have a team and a coachman to drive it. For my part, I should be as happy with a chaise-and-two, though the weather has been chill, and I much fear that the snows will render the carriage useless before it is ready. Then, of course, I shall have to wait for the sleigh to be refurbished for my use.

Blightwell has acquired horses for Miss Derby and myself—a pair of dreary spiritless hacks that convey one from place to place at a halting amble. He pretends that no better mounts were available at short notice, and that they will do quite well, as I am no horsewoman.

The dreadful part, my dear Armand, is that he is quite correct. One has no need of a horse to promenade through the Park in Yorke, not unless one is a young single gentleman of good family on the hunt. One walks, or one rides in the chaise of an admirer. I do believe the last time I sat a horse was when I was last in Wickshire, and I fear that the horse in question was most likely a pony. And while I am bewailing my lack of skill, I suppose I should admit that I could not drive a chaise and two if one were available.

There is worse. I have discovered, to my shock and dismay, that it is not the done thing for a young lady to pay morning calls or come for tea upon her own horse! I may ride where I like, certainly, provided that I wear a proper riding habit and keep Miss Derby with me at all times; but I must not pay social calls in a riding habit. It would be like wearing a morning dress to the assembly at Harrison House, or so I am told. No more vouchers for ever and ever, amen!

I tell you truly, Armand, I had no notion that country life was so hedged about with rules. Why, it is as bad as Yorke!

And so I may ride for diversion; and I may have speech with any of my acquaintance I should happen meet. But if I wish to go visiting, I must either be driven or I must walk. And though I am accustomed to walking in Yorke—that is, I was accustomed to my three times around the Park each morning, in those merry days before I fell in with He Whose Name I Shall Not Remember—walking in Yorke is not like walking in the country. And with the weather as it is has been, it is beyond enough to keep the hem of one's skirt clean enough to enter anyone's house but one's own.

The country is beautiful, but it is not well-groomed. I do wish my never-to-be-sufficiently-forgotten beau had revealed his inner wickedness in the late winter rather than the late fall, for we should all have been much happier. Except for him, of course, the poltroon!

Yes, cousin, I called him a poltroon. I do not know quite what the word means, but it cannot be sufficiently bad, I assure you.

And so today I took tea with Mrs. Grimsby and her two ill-favored daughters, for she was good enough—if good is the mot juste—to send her carriage for me. She is a sharp-nosed, sharp-tongued old harpy, and I do believe she regards me as a parvenu even though the Montjoys have held property here since time out of mind. More, she is a gossip, and she never fails to quiz me on the reasons for my rustication—for we have not revealed the reason for my sojourn here to anyone. The official story is that I have been sickly, and have come to the country for my health.

And so every week she summons me for tea, and inquires after my health, which word she utters with what would be a simper on a better favored countenance, and I assure her that I am feeling quite the thing while her daughters laugh at me behind their fans, and respond to all her searching queries with cheerful pleasantries. It would be all too infuriating had I not the experience of being snubbed by the best in Yorke. As it is I retain my composure, and ask after their relations and the county news, and tot up the number of defects in their dress and their manner, for I have been keeping a record. They would never do at Harrison House, Armand, never.

Today, however, there was an extra diversion: we took tea with a Lieutenant Pertwee of the 2nd Hussars, a fine looking young man with long side whiskers and no mental capacity to speak. I rejoiced to see him, for it meant that I was spared many of the Grimsby's little attentions. Instead, she plied him for news of the garrison, and was greatly rewarded.

It seems that a Lieutenant Milton in one of the other companies has been—I believe he said "cashiered", which is an odd sort of word, Armand, I do think—has been relieved of his office for gambling! Or, not for gambling, I suppose, but for gambling when he hadn't a feather to fly with. I do believe there was more to the story than Lieutenant Milton was willing to share with us of the fairer sex, for he ended with, "Beg your pardon, ma'am," and a fit of coughing I quite failed to believe.

There were many exclamations of horror from the Sisters Grimsby—Agatha and Matilda, if I have not previously named them—and sententious moralizing from their mother, followed by speculations as to his replacement: for the 2nd Hussars is a crack regiment and his place will surely be filled in short order. The Sisters Grimsby are hoping for a gentleman—by which they mean not a gentleman, merely, for of course an officer must be a gentleman, but rather a gentleman with expectations.

"But a gentleman with expectations would not be pursuing a military career," I objected, for I must do my duty as a guest, you know, and say such things as will allow my hosts to feel the fullness of their superior judgement and character.

"He might, you know," said Agatha. "He might be seeking glory in battle. Or, perhaps he will be fleeing an undesired marriage."

"Or trying to forget some great sorrow," said Matilda, adding, with a ghoulish leer, "And even a younger son might inherit under the proper circumstances."

I refrained from arguing that a young man fleeing an undesired marriage would hardly have funds to purchase a lieutenantcy, or that while they were dreaming they should hold out for a captain at least. Not these points did not occur to me, but the Grimsby had a pointed look in her eye, and so I remonstrated no further.

Lieutenant Pertwee absented himself shortly after, and moments after that I was consigned to the care of John Coachman and returned, belittled but unbowed, to The Elms.

And so it was not an entirely objectionable outing, Armand; for at least now if I should happen to encounter the good lieutenant while out riding, I may greet him. It is but a little gain, but such are my social victories here in Wickshire.

Your affectionate cousin,

Amelia

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Letters from Armorica- Grumbling (12 February 37 AF)

First Letter

Dear Jack,

It has been three weeks since I wrote you about the troubles between the town and the garrison; and if the situation has grown no worse, it is only because the snow is too deep for any group to gather in large numbers at Le Cochon's Head. Those few soldiers and sailors who make it there consequently find ample room. But the mood about town is ugly, and even I can tell that the troops are desperately unhappy and blame us for their situation. And yet I have heard nothing from you, or from His Lordship!

Captain Hampton assures me that everything is quite normal, just what he would expect, that soldiers always grumble, that his own troops have endured far worse conditions than this without lasting harm, that there is really nothing for me to be concerned with.

"It's just part of the soldier's life," he told me. "It's got to be winter sometime. One just has to get through it. And you don't want them so comfortable that they get soft. We're here to defend the town. How would it be if there were an attack, and the men were so cozy in their beds that we couldn't get them up to meet it in time? As it is, they'd look on an attack as a personal favor, something to get their blood moving and warm 'em up.

"No, Mr. Tuppenny, we know what we are doing; and the men expect nothing better. Not that a tavern closer to the post would be unwelcome, you understand! But all things in good time."

Still, I worry. Would it be seemly to offer Captain Hampton the use of our Town Hall as a sort of barracks until spring? It is no more than a barn of a building, and unheated; but stoves could be added, and it would seem to be more hospitable than tents in the snow. If you think it right I shall offer its use to him (though, I may say, I fear what I would find carved into the walls come spring); and if His Lordship were to provide the stoves I would send a wagon to Mont-Havre to fetch them. Four stoves, say? One in each corner?

But perhaps you will agree with Captain Hampton. If so, I suppose I must defer to your greater experience.

Speaking of the weather: one of our regular drivers spoke to me about the need for warmer coats. He tells me that he's not used to plying his trade this time of year; usually when the snows get too deep to travel he and his brethren are out of work until after the spring thaw. Our wagons laugh at the deep snow, of course; it is a selling point. We have been giving the drivers warming blocks to carry with them, but he said that they aren't enough without a heavier coat to keep in the warmth. His thought was that we might have a sideline selling heavy driving coats, with special pockets for the warming blocks. Perhaps you and Leon could investigate the possibilities in Mont-Havre? For there is no need at all to make such coats here in Bois-de-Bas, where we have neither the materials nor the skills.

Though I suppose a coat whose exterior was lined with goat skin could be a defense against bandits…but no, the wear and tear on the wagon would be too great. Never mind.

I have been hearing from your sister Amelia, of all people. I was rather surprised, for though Amelia and I have always gotten on well enough, we have never been chums. Have you heard from her as well? It seems she has removed to the old family home in Wickshire. I have heard her explanation for it; I am curious to know yours.

Please give my regards to His Lordship, and give him my apologies as well if my concerns for the garrison are truly misplaced.

Armand

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Letters from Armorica- The Elms (9 February 37 AF)

First Letter

The Elms, Wickshire, Cumbria

9 December 1014

My dearest cousin Armand,

Yes it is I, again. I fear you are to be stuck with me, at least so long as my sojourn here in Wickshire extends. But I shall endeavour, as in good faith, to make my wailings and lamentations as diverting for you as they are not for me.

Father has now returned to Yorke, leaving me here with Miss Derby, the two of us alone in this ramshackle old pile. Yes, ramshackle! Inwardly, at least; Blightwell, Father's most unfortunately named man of business, has taken good care of the farms, the gardens, the grounds, the roof, and all such visible things that might reflect upon Father and Mother here in the County. But within, The Elms has been languishing under holland covers these past ten years or more. Blightwell has made it a point to pass through the house every week or so, so there are no leaks or damage of that sort. But there was no housekeeper, no caretaker, no maids, no cook, no butler, no grooms, no horses. Beds were unaired; linens mouldered in the linen closets; cups and dishes gathered a layer of dust; what little silver was left here, locked up tight in the butler's pantry, has turned quite black; and everything within is as cold as the stones without.

Father has not left me entirely orphaned here. The state of The Elms was so far beyond enough that we were obliged to put up at the King's Scones in Stourton while Father hired a local couple to do for us: Mrs. Morphick will keep house and cook, and her husband will be a kind of butler-cum-footman. And then, of course, we had to remain in Stourton while the house was made livable. We shall not be opening the entire house, of course, just enough for our use. And Father has given instructions to open the stables and find hacks that Miss Derby and might ride, weather permitting.

I must give Father credit, Armand. He will insist on confining me here in Wickshire—that is, in the Back of Beyond—"until the talk dies down in Yorke"; and I may say to you that though I wish to scream "I care nothing for the talk in Yorke!", and have done so, I fear, at times, I am just as glad not to see the old ladies look at each other and smirk when I enter a room, yes, and the young ones too. It is too vexing, Armand! Too, too vexing, for I have done nothing but give a sorry excuse for a gentleman the ducking he deserved.

But though Father's sense of the right thing to do in these circumstances is dire, there is no shabbiness in him, as you know as well as I. He is not playing the pinchpenny here, nor has he requested the Morphics to spy on me, but rather to make me comfortable in every way. Indeed, I believe they are related to the aged chief servants I remember from a child, and they dote on me in the extreme. It is another reason why I write these lines to you rather than to Mother, for she could but take them as ingratitude after all of Father's efforts. You, I know, understand the need for discretion where one's people are concerned.

So there will be horses; indeed, Blightwell is seeing to the refurbishment of our old carriage, and of the sleigh we use in fine weather when the snow is too deep for a carriage. And I am exceedingly grateful, for else I should not be able to leave the grounds until spring, or visit the shops in Stourton (such as they are) or take tea with friends there.

And may I say, Armand, that Stourton is quite a colorful place this year? For the 2nd Hussars are in residence nearby, and it is a treat to see the officers in their blue coats and shakos promenading down the high street with the local damsels on their arms. The horses cannot arrive soon enough for me!

No, no, Armand, I do not aspire to become one of those damsels, think what you will. It is too soon. But the house here is so dark, and the days so dreary, that I am mad for any diversion, any bright thing to observe and take delight in, and for any conversation but Miss Derby's. A fine woman, do not mistake me, and devoted to me, but I am all too well acquainted with her complete store of observations.

Of course, in order to take tea with friends, I must first acquire some. Here again, Father did not leave me quite orphaned. He introduced me to Mrs. Grimsby and her daughters, the inhabitants of Ukridge House—they being our nearest neighbors; and also to Mrs. Willoughby and her daughter, who live at Stourness on the far side of Stourton, her husband being the local squire. The Grimsby is well named, I fear, though in prudence I may not shun her; but I have great hopes of Miss Willoughby should I be able to extract her from her mother's presence. Mrs. Willoughby has been good enough to send her carriage to fetch me twice since Father left, and so I must pay her every attention when I come; but once our carriage is ready I shall be freer to visit her daughter.

Need I say that Father introduced me to no gentlemen at all? Not even to Squire Willoughby, though of course I expect that that will come in time.

But I have reached the end of my paper, Armand. I hope you can decipher my crossings! Do write me, though I know it shall be months before I can hear from you! Until then, I remain,

Your lonely cousin,

Amelia

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photo credit: George Stubbs / Public domain, 1793, “The 10th Hussars”