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Excerpt

Excerpt

Master of His Fate

One

James Lionel Falconer, commonly called Jimmy by everyone except his grandmother, was out of breath. He came to a sudden stop in the middle of the road going toward Camden Lock. The wheelbarrow he was pushing was heavy and grew heavier by the minute, at least so it seemed to him. He rested for a few seconds, leaning against the barrow, endeavoring to catch his breath.

It was Thursday, June 12, 1884, and last month, in late May, he had celebrated his fourteenth birthday. He felt very grown-up now. After all, he had been working with his father at their stalls in the Malvern Market since he was eight. That was part time until he was ten, when he began to go there every day. He loved the haggling, the negotiating, the wheeling and dealing about prices, just as much as his father did.

His father called him “my clever lad,” which pleased Jimmy. He admired his father, endeavored to emulate him. Matthew Falconer, who was thirty-seven, dressed neatly to go to work, and so did Jimmy. His father never forgot to ask his regulars how members of their families were, and neither did Jimmy. It had been instilled in him.

Even his grandmother, Esther Falconer, had noticed, since his early childhood, how he copied his father in most things. It frequently brought a smile to her face, and sometimes she even gave him a threepenny bit for being a good boy. She told him to save it for a rainy day. He did. He paid great attention to her.

Straightening, blowing out air, Jimmy picked up the two handles and started pushing the barrow once more. He walked at an even pace, knowing that this main road got a bit higher after it branched off on both sides.

He stayed on the main road, puffing a bit harder, perspiring; it was a warm day. He was almost at the market when he experienced a sharp, stabbing pain in his chest, and came to an abrupt stop, startled by the intensity of the pain. He’d never felt anything like it. The pain seemed to grow worse and he swallowed hard, unable to move.

Holding on to the handles of the barrow tightly, he kept himself upright even though he thought he might fall over anyway. Slowly, the pain subsided. He was still short of breath; sweat covered his face. He couldn’t imagine what was wrong with him. What had just happened?

“Jimmy! Jimmy! Are you awright, lad?”

He recognized Mrs. Greenwood’s voice and turned around. She was a neighbor, a cook who worked in a big house in a terrace near Regent’s Park.

“I’m fine,” he answered, and he did feel better. Whatever the pain had been about, it had gone away. He just felt a bit warm on this sunny day, and breathless.

When she arrived at his side, Mavis Greenwood peered at him intently, her warm, motherly face ringed with concern. “You stopped suddenly, and looked a bit odd. I can’t help thinking something is wrong.”

“No, it isn’t. Not really. I just got out of breath and felt hot.”

She nodded. “Let’s not complain about the weather. It’s been raining cats and dogs for days.”

Jimmy laughed. He liked Mrs. Greenwood. She often brought them some of her baked goods, as she called her marvelous concoctions, and he was especially partial to her gooseberry tart.

“Where’s your dad, Jimmy? He shouldn’t let you push this barrow. It’s almost bigger than you.”

He grinned at her; then his face quickly changed. He sobered as he explained, “Dad’s taken Mum to see Dr. Robertson. She says it’s just a cold, but me dad thinks it might be bronchitis, or worse, pneumonia.”

“Oh, I do hope it’s not, lad. They’re serious illnesses.” Placing her handbag on top of the sack covering the contents in the wheelbarrow, she got hold of one of the handles. “Come on then, Jimmy, take the other handle, and I’ll help you push this to the market.”

Jimmy was about to refuse her help, but changed his mind at once. It would offend her. He did as she said, grabbed the other handle, and together they pushed the barrow, keeping in step with each other.

When he had first rented a stall at the Malvern Market, Matthew Falconer made up his mind to be successful, and he was. The owner soon took an interest in him, realizing what a good merchant he was, and when a new stall became available it was Matt who was given the chance to rent it. He did.

The Malvern was one of the few covered markets in the area, and because of its glass roof and stone walls, it was protected when the weather was bad. This meant the stalls were open to the public all year round; every stall holder appreciated this.

Jimmy and Mavis Greenwood pushed the barrow through the big iron gates, to be greeted by Tommy, the caretaker, who lived in the gatehouse. Then Jimmy and Mavis headed toward the area where the two adjoining sheds were located.

Once the shed doors were unlocked and folded back, Jimmy opened the doors of the storage rooms, which were like two small shops. Mavis Greenwood helped him to pull out the wooden sawhorses and the planks of wood which made the stalls when put together.

As she assisted Jimmy, she wondered how Matt Falconer had expected his son to do this alone. It baffled her but she remained silent. She knew it was best to mind her own business.

Once they were finished with the stalls, she picked up her handbag from the barrow, smiled at Jimmy. “And what treasures are hidden under that old sack, then?”

Jimmy pulled it off and showed her. “Copper kitchen utensils me dad got at an estate sale last week. From a big house up west.” He pointed to a few items.

“Look at ’em, Mrs. Greenwood. Copper molds for jellies, blancmange, salmon mousse, all the things you no doubt make at that big house where you’re cook.”

She nodded and picked up a few items, looking them over carefully. “Lovely pieces, Jimmy, I’ve got to admit. How much is this mold then?” she asked, taking a fancy to one.

“Dad forgot to give me the price list, but you can have it for sixpence. I think that’d be about right.”

“Sixpence! That’s highway robbery, Jimmy Falconer!”

“Oh! Well, perhaps I made a mistake. A threepenny bit? How does that sound, Mrs. Greenwood?” He gazed at her, smiling. After all, she had helped him to get there. She deserved a bargain.

Mavis opened her handbag and took out her purse. She handed him the coin, gave him a big smile, and put the mold in her bag. “Thank you, Jimmy. You’ve been very fair. Now I’d better be getting off or I’ll be late for work.”

“Thanks for helping me, Mrs. Greenwood. Can I ask you something?”

“Anything you want, but best make it quick, lad.”

“Can you have a heart attack at fourteen?” he asked, staring intently.

She stared back at him and exclaimed, “Don’t be daft, Jimmy! Anyway, you’re as fit as a fiddle. You must be or your dad wouldn’t expect you to push that heavy barrow up here.”

* * *

Once he was alone, Jimmy began to arrange the copper molds on the stalls, following his father’s instructions to always put tall pieces at the back, graduating them down in size because the buyer’s eye would look at the first grouping and then move up to the taller items.

He worried about his mother as he did this task almost by rote, also wondering where his father was. Why was it taking so long at the doctor’s? Now and then he turned around, looked down toward the gates into the market. It was still quite early, and only a few stall holders were already there, doing the same job as him.

Thoughts of Mrs. Greenwood intruded, and he felt a sudden rush of guilt. She had blamed his father for his predicament on the road, but it was his fault. He had filled the wheelbarrow too full, piled in far too many molds and a variety of additional items. He must explain that the next time he saw her. He didn’t want his father to look bad in her eyes.

Jimmy had just finished arranging the wares on the stalls when he spotted his father coming through the iron gates, hurrying toward him. His first instinct was to rush forward, but he restrained himself, as he had been taught from an early age—control yourself, be dignified. And so he waited.

Matthew Falconer came to a stop, smiling, and drew his son close to his body for a moment. “She’s got a very heavy cold,” Matt explained, at once noting the worried expression in Jimmy’s blue eyes. “She’s back home in bed. The doctor gave her some good cough mixture. She’s to stay in bed, be kept warm and given lots of liquids.”

Beaming at his father, filled with relief, Jimmy said, “I’m thankful it’s not bronchitis or pneumonia.”

“You can say that again. I’m as grateful as you, Jim. Now, I want you to go to your grandmother’s. I need her to give you a bottle of her raspberry vinegar concoction and some camphor bags, as well as any special advice she has. Lady Agatha won’t mind you going, if she’s still there. Your grandmother told me the family is going to France for the next few months, and leaving today.”

The boy nodded. “I’ll go now. Shall I take the things home to Mother?”

“That’s correct, my lad. Grandmother will no doubt give you a sandwich and perhaps some food to take home for your mother.”

“But what about you, Dad? We forgot to make our snacks before we left this morning.”

“Don’t worry about me. The pie man usually comes around hawking his goods at one o’clock. I’ll manage.”

“I’ll come back, after I’ve given Mother her lunch.”

“No, no, don’t do that! It’s not worth it for an hour or two in the late afternoon. Stay at home, look after Rossi and Eddie, and make sure they have something to eat. Now, off you go.”

 

Two

James was happy, and for various reasons. He was glad his mother did not have some deadly illness and that she was safe at home in bed. He was relieved his father had lost that worried look. Matthew was whistling when he had left the stalls. And he was thrilled to be going to see his grandmother.

As he walked out of the Malvern, without a backward glance, he hurried along the road, wanting to get there as fast as possible. His grandmother, Esther Marie Falconer, was the most important and influential person in his life. As he was in hers. That he knew to be an absolute certainty, because she had told him so. Although she was careful, discreet, not wanting to hurt his siblings.

James loved his parents, emulated some of his father’s mannerisms and way of dressing; he loved his sister, Rossi, now twelve, and his little brother, Eddie, who had just had his ninth birthday. And then there was his wonderful grandfather, who kept an eye on them all. Philip Henry Rosewood Falconer had taught him a lot, especially about geography and the rest of the world. He had even given him a globe on a stand, which James treasured.

Nonetheless, his grandmother was at the top of his list. She was his guiding light; she had taught him to read and write by the time he was four. When he had gone to the kindergarten in Rochester at that age, his first teacher had been truly impressed by his ability and his intelligence.

James realized, as he headed down the road leaving Camden behind, that it was as busy a morning as usual. There were crowds of men hurrying up to the Malvern, who were obviously stall holders, and women, too, who looked as if they were customers out for a bargain.

Mornings and evenings were generally hectic during the week, the streets filled with men and women going to their workplace, and then returning home at the end of the day.

Some of the men waved to him, and he waved back, smiling hugely. These were the stall holders who had their setups near theirs. James had a genial nature and a ready smile. He liked people and made friends easily. In turn, they were attracted to him because of his charismatic personality and handsome appearance.

Esther Falconer lived near Regent’s Park, and it was not too far away. James knew he would soon be there, once he had crossed Chalk Farm Road. He was headed in the direction of Marylebone.

He liked Marylebone and knew a lot about the area. His grandmother had told him that the region had been planned and developed by the great Regency architect John Nash around 1818, and that his overall architectural scheme had included Regent Street, Regent’s Park, and the beautiful terraces and streets of elegant townhouses close to the park.

Philip and Esther Falconer lived in one of those formally designed John Nash townhouses facing Regent’s Park. But it did not belong to them. The Falconers worked for the Honorable Arthur Blane Montague and his wife, Lady Agatha Denby Montague, daughter of Lord Percival Denby, the Sixth Earl of Melton.

Esther was born in the Yorkshire village of Melton, which was not very far from the great northern seaport of Hull. At twelve, Esther was pretty, clever, and ambitious, and through her mother’s connection to the aunt of Lady Agatha, she was given a job at Melton Priory.

Esther was trained to be a lady’s maid, specifically to look after Lady Agatha, the earl’s youngest daughter, who was then sixteen. At seventeen she came out as a debutante and had her first Season in London, and was presented at court.

Esther had been with Lady Agatha ever since. Forty-four years, to be precise. Over the years she had risen in the ranks; now she was the head housekeeper at Lady Agatha’s current residences in London and Kent, and proud of her position.

Philip Falconer, a Kentish man, had also gone into service. He had started out as a junior footman at sixteen in the employment of the Honorable Arthur Blane Montague at the latter’s country manor, Fountains Court in Kent. He had also worked at the Regent’s Park house, which Mr. Montague had purchased several years before his marriage to Lady Agatha.

Esther and Philip had met at this beautiful Nash house in London, where they had soon fallen in love. They were married from the house and had lived there ever since. Their employers valued them far too much to let them go. Lady Agatha had transformed a set of rooms at the back of the house into a flat for Philip and Esther. It was still their main home, although they had the same kind of quarters at Fountains Court in Kent, where their three sons had been born and brought up.

* * *

Esther was crossing the opulent entrance hall when she stopped abruptly. Somebody outside was repeatedly banging the brass door knocker so hard it sounded like thunder.

Rushing across the marble floor, she opened the front door to find herself eyeball-to-eyeball with her favorite grandchild.

Momentarily taken aback though she was, she instantly smiled, reached out, and drew him into the house. Then the smile slipped when she asked swiftly, with a small frown, “Is there something wrong? Why are you here in the middle of the day, James?”

“There’s nothing wrong, Grans, not really. Mum’s sick. Dr. Robertson says she has a heavy cold, and he gave her a bottle of medicine. He said she should go home to bed. That’s where she is now. Dad sent me for some of your raspberry vinegar concoction, as he calls it. Oh, and some camphor bags.”

“I understand,” Esther answered, her sudden anxiety dissipating. “I’m sure the doctor’s right. Unfortunately summer colds are hard to get rid of, James.” Putting her arms around him, she hugged him to her. He hugged her back, then stepped away, and said, “I’m sorry if I frightened you, Grans.”

“I’m all right. Your sudden arrival alarmed me, though, at least for a split second.” She gazed at him, her eyes roaming over his face. It had been only ten days since she had seen him, and yet he looked more mature and was now an inch taller than she was.

Staring back at her, he asked softly, “What is it? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Esther shook her head. A faint smile crossed her face. “You’ve changed a bit, and you seem to be, well, more mature. You might be only fourteen, but you are growing up rapidly.”

He smiled at her, and then laughed. And she was dazzled by him … the even white teeth, the natural charm, the most stunning blue eyes, filled with sparkle and life. Women are going to fall at his feet, she thought.

Brushing incipient worry to one side, she now said, “Let’s go down to my parlor and I’ll tell Cook to make the raspberry vinegar concoction. She’ll also make you something to eat.”

Esther led James downstairs to the long corridor where her parlor was located, and Philip’s office, as well as the kitchen and the wine cellars. Showing him into her room, she went to the kitchen to speak to Cook.

* * *

Left alone in the parlor, James went and sat in a chair near the window. He liked this room. It was comfortable, nice to be in, and full of light.

There was a fireplace, a sofa and chairs, and his grandmother’s desk. She had once explained that it was Georgian, a very good antique piece which Lady Agatha had given her. Basically, the room was an office where Esther did her menus, her household accounts, and other paperwork, but she could also relax here between her many duties.

His grandfather’s room was a few doors down the corridor. It, too, had a desk, and was full of books, mostly about wine and the vineyards of France.

Philip Falconer had become an expert on wine over the years, and Mr. Montague had allowed him to create a wonderful cellar.

The two men frequently went off to Provence to visit vineyards and purchase stock, and they enjoyed these trips to France, hunting down the best wines.

James knew how lucky the whole family was, because of Philip and Esther Falconer. Their very long service in the Montague household protected them all. His father and two uncles worked and made decent livings, but there was, most importantly, the reassuring knowledge that the older Falconers were there for them, should they need help of any kind. Lucky indeed.

People giving over their entire lives to one aristocratic family was not unusual in this reign of Queen Victoria. They were kept on because they were excellent at what they did, and they were usually well rewarded by their employers. In a sense they became part of the family, were often given many small privileges which were much appreciated. James’s grandparents had many perks because the Montagues thought so highly of them. His grandmother had recently confided that Lady Agatha had told her that she was not the best, but better than the best, and so was Philip. Esther had sounded very proud, chuffed, when she recounted this statement to him.

James looked across at the door as it opened and his grandfather came in, a huge smile on his face. Jumping up, James ran to him. They embraced and Philip kissed his cheek before releasing him.

“What a nice surprise to see you, my boy. I notice that you’ve shot up a bit since I last saw you.”

“That’s what Father says.”

“Your grandmother told me your mother’s not well; that’s why Matthew sent you for the raspberry vinegar. He’s all right himself, isn’t he?”

James nodded. “Fighting fit, he says.”

Philip seated himself on the sofa, and James took the chair opposite. “Has Lady Agatha gone away then?”

Philip smiled, knowing how much James enjoyed the way her ladyship fussed over him. “She has indeed, with the Honorable Mister and Miss Helena and Master William, plus two maids, the valet, and enough baggage to fill two coaches. Gone to the Riviera to enjoy the sun and the festivities by the sea. They will stay in Nice and then progress to Monte Carlo. They will return in September, unless the Honorable Mister wants to come back in August for the grouse.”

Esther arrived and announced, “Let’s go to the staff dining room and have a bite of lunch.” Beckoning to them, she went on, “Cook has made a cottage pie, and she’s now preparing another one for you to take home, James, and an excellent chicken soup for your mother. Nothing like chicken soup to cure a sore throat.”

Philip and James followed Esther as she hurried down the corridor and into the staff dining room, where they sat down together. They would have it to themselves for the next hour, while the other staff cleaned the house and went about their duties.

For a long time Esther had wanted to discuss the future with her grandson, eager to know if he had any special plans about his work. She realized this was a great opportunity to bring up the subject.

Turning to look at him, her pale green eyes filled with love, she began. “I’ve been meaning to ask you if you intend to spend your life working at the Malvern with Matthew on the two stalls. Or whether you might have other ideas, perhaps?”

Taken by surprise, James stared at her, his eyes wide, his expression quizzical. He did not answer for a moment. Finally, he said, “I don’t know, not really.”

“It has occurred to me, from time to time, that you love architecture, and I know how intrigued you are about John Nash and his Regency buildings. Grandpa and I would be prepared to send you to school to be trained in architecture, if you want that,” Esther announced, and sat back in her chair, looking at him expectantly.

He shook his head vehemently. “No, I don’t want to be an architect, Grans, but thank you for offering to send me to school, and you, too, Grandpapa. That’s generous of you.” He was sincere, and this echoed in his voice.

“What about school in general?” Philip asked, leaning forward, his entire focus on his grandson. He was aware James was a special boy, highly intelligent, with the kind of class that was bred in the bone. He also had enormous charm and looks, and he was an achiever.

When James was silent, Philip added, “There is no pressure from us, James, but think about it, maybe something will come to you. We just want you to understand we are here for you.”

James nodded, looked at his grandfather intently, thinking how smart he was in his black jacket, pinstriped trousers, pristine white shirt, and silver silk tie. The perfectly dressed butler.

His glance was now aimed at his grandmother, also well attired in a long navy blue skirt and matching blouse, with a white collar and cuffs. Her luxuriant silver-blond hair was piled up on top of her head. She was the epitome of tailored elegance in his opinion.

He knew she was fifty-six, but she didn’t look her age. And neither did his grandfather, who was now sixty. They have worn well, he thought, and suppressed a smile, wondering what they would say if he told them this.

Straightening in his chair, taking a deep breath, James decided to tell them the truth about his dreams, and plunged in. “I want to be a merchant,” he exclaimed. “By that I mean I want to own a shop like Fortnum and Mason, and an arcade of shops like the Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly. I want to be the most successful merchant in London! In the world!” His voice had risen in his escalating excitement and, as he sat back taking a deep breath, he realized his grandparents were staring at him in astonishment.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Barbara Taylor Bradford

Master of His Fate
by by Barbara Taylor Bradford

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250187397
  • ISBN-13: 9781250187390