Minerva:The Six Sisters 01

By: Marion Chesney & M.C. Beaton

ONE



Up until the winter of 1811, anyone would have described the vicar of St Charles and St Jude, the Reverend Charles Armitage, as a very happy man.

He had six beautiful daughters and two fine sons. He had a pallid, ailing wife whom he largely ignored, and above all, he had his hunters and his hounds. He was a jolly, robust, shovel-hatted man who rode to hounds in a pepper-and-salt coat and was welcome at the dinner tables of almost every house of note in the county of Berham.

Admittedly, Sundays were apt to be a bit of a trial when he took his sore head and heartburn into the pulpit to read the sermon his eldest daughter, Minerva, had dutifully prepared for him.

But the other days were splendid, taken up with the chase, the gun and the rod.

His parishioners were used to the vagaries of their vicar, and only a few of the more devout occasionally longed for a vicar who cared more for the word of God than for the word of the Sporting Chronicle and Bailey’s Guide to the Turf.

He owned two farms from which he derived much of his income. He had turned a deaf ear to any suggestions of using modern methods of agriculture, and that, combined with a succession of quite dreadful harvests, had left the vicar in a difficult financial situation by the winter of 1811. Added to that, his two sons, the twins, Peregrine and James, were shortly to celebrate their ninth year. They were largely untutored, and the vicar was overcome with a burning desire to send them to Eton, which would involve a year for both at Dr Brown’s crammer in the King’s Road, London, first, to ensure that they passed their entrance exams.

His money seemed to have melted like fairy gold. Had his concern for the boys’ education been motivated by any altruistic thoughts, then perhaps he might not have hit on an idea to raise himself out of the mire of debt into which he had fallen. But he was a totally self-centred man, and he saw the boys as an extension of himself, young bear cubs to be licked into the Armitage image. And so he set about schemes for raising money with all the single-minded zeal of the true egotist.

His first thought was to pay a visit on his brother, the baronet, at the Hall.

Sir Edwin Armitage, Bart, looked down his long nose at his brother, the vicar, considering him boorish and uncouth. Social intercourse between the two families was somewhat strained. Sir Edwin had a great deal of money and two proud daughters and a proud wife. He would have severed all connection with the vicar had not his wife pointed out to him that it was their Christian duty to be kind to ‘those poor Armitages’, which, being translated, meant that Lady Edwin and her daughters gained much pleasure from dressing in their best and contrasting their finery with the plain, shabby frocks of the Armitage girls.

But the Reverend Charles Armitage was determined to get money from his brother, and so he knew he would have to toady quite dreadfully.

‘Edwin is a put, Edwin is a snob, Edwin is a chaw-bacon,’ he muttered to the tune of his hunter’s hooves as he rode through Hopeworth towards the Hall, the entrance of which was situated at the far end of the village.

There was a hard, sparkling frost on the ground. It would have cut the hounds’ paws which is why the reverend was not out hunting. It also accounted for his morose temper.

A pale, thin disc of a sun, not enough to warm the frigid air, swam through a haze of cloud. ‘I must have the money, I must have the money,’ went the vicar’s litany. ‘Oh, my hounds and horses. Oh, Bellsire and Thunderer, oh, Rambler and Daphne,’ he went on, going over the names of his hounds to comfort him.

Hopeworth was a pretty village with trim cottages and neat gardens. A sheet of ice like a looking glass covered the village pond on the green, and women in shawls were huddled around the well. From the Six Jolly Beggarmen, Hopeworth’s public house, floated an aroma of beer and brandy and rhubarb. He contemplated dropping in for a glass of shrub to fortify himself, and then decided against it. Better to get the distasteful business over as soon as possible.

The Hall was a handsome, Baroque, red-brick mansion, built in 1725. To the north and east of it stretched well-wooded parkland. The Saloon into which the vicar was ushered held an agreeable mixture of English, French and Dutch furniture. There were Louis XVI armchairs covered in Beauvais tapestry, and some fine lattice-backed Chippendale chairs. The walls were covered with hand-painted Chinese wallpaper.

‘I will h’ascertain whether the master is at ’ome,’ said the fat footman.

‘Cockney popinjay,’ said the vicar, but he did not say it aloud. He had no wish to waste time putting his brother’s servants in their place.

He fought with his temper as the minutes ticked away and his brother did not come. The vicar strode up to the mantelpiece and straightened his stock. He suddenly felt that it might have been better to don morning dress for this money-eliciting occasion instead of an old-plush game coat with many pockets, gosling-green cords and very dark tops.