The year is 1786 and the small Willows Estate nestles deep in the quiet countryside of Wiltshire, not far from Mere. The roaming country manor “The Willows” in the heart of the estate has been in the family for some generations. It was an estate once owned by the late Earl of Fenwick, and was inherited by his great nephew George MacMartin from Lochiel who left Scotland and took up residence there in 1716, later marrying the Lady Abigail Pembroke from Wilton in 1717. They had had two children, George and Jane, but tragedy struck the family just four years after the birth of their daughter, Jane, when in 1724, Lady Abigail died of a fever that took only two days to consume her, leaving her grieving husband to care for his two small children. They lived their lives in relative peace till the son, it was said, met with an untimely death while serving with the army abroad. It was after his death that George MacMartin changed his name to Martin, devoting his life to his daughter Jane, wanting above all else to keep her shielded from the world around him. She was, after all, his sole heir.
While visiting a friend’s home in London, Lady Jane, at the impressionable age of nineteen, met her mild-mannered Scotsman Charles Hamilton who hailed from Edinburgh. Lady Jane’s heart was his from the beginning, but when Charles Hamilton offered a proposal of marriage to her father, he met stern opposition. It was only after much pleading and many tears that her father consented to the marriage with the proviso that they made their home in The Willows in the West Country; he would not have his daughter taken from him to live in some wild remote area of Scotland―he loved his country but he knew only too well the dangers there.
Charles Hamilton was the third-born and youngest son of a family of five; his father was a Scottish Lord of the house of Hamilton from Edinburgh. Being the youngest son, he had no claim to title or lands, just money left to him by his grandfather. So when they married in 1739, Lady Jane’s father made the estate over to his daughter and Charles Hamilton, to be held in custody for their first born son. If there be no son, then the first born daughter. In the event of no children and Charles Hamilton survived his wife, he would inherit. Their happiness though was to be short-lived; for just over a year into the marriage in 1740, Lady Jane died in childbirth. Four years later, her father George Martin was also dead, some said of a broken heart; he had already lost his son, and when he looked at his granddaughter Elizabeth, he could see only his beloved daughter Jane―their deaths were too great for him to endure. Charles Hamilton bereft
with grief himself, having been married only a year, never re-married, but lived his life through his only daughter, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Hamilton (like her mother Jane) also married for love. She met Andrew Duncan when his family visited the willows in 1759. He was the second- born son from the Duncan’s of Dundee, and likewise had no claim to lands, just monies endowed to him by his mother. For Andrew Duncan it was a good match. He had no inclination to go into the clergy, which was expected at that time of the second-born male child of any noble family, for he would then become the owner of a substantial estate, albeit in the south west of England. Things were fine within the family until Elizabeth’s father died of the lung sickness which consumed him within six months, just three years after the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth in 1763, but not before he had seen his only grandchild Stewart come safely into the world in 1762.
It was only then that Andrew Duncan changed in character. During the next few years, and after having sold off many acres of land from the estate to pay debtors, he left Elizabeth to go back to Scotland, under circumstances Elizabeth knew only too well. Over the years since then, these dark secrets within The Willows have been bubbling like a cauldron, keeping its occupants in constant reminder of what had happened all those years past. Circumstance and fate will determine the outcome now; and it is very close to surfacing...
The hot July sun came streaming through the latticed windows onto the large four-poster bed where Stewart Hamilton lay languidly on his stomach. The hour was just before eleven―or so the clock said as it ticked away in its soothing fashion on the mantle shelf above the fireplace. He had spent two years in Italy, studying, amongst other things, astrology with an old family friend Rodolfo Visconti, the relationship with the families going back two generations to his Grandfather Charles Hamilton. As a child, Stewart had been fascinated by the subject, so later when life had become intolerable at home―because of the animosity Stewart held for his father Andrew Duncan―his mother Elizabeth had urged him to go; she did not want this, but the alternative was not an option. The problems had been masked while Stewart was boarding at Winchester College, but when he returned home at the age of eighteen, he realised at once the extent of the damage done by his father. At times the fights between father and son had become so intense―though never physically coming to blows―there was a festering resentment between them, and Elizabeth came to fear for her son that in his rage Stewart would strike out at his father. Both had a temper that once lit could not easily be doused. So in 1782, Stewart left England to find refuge with his mother’s friend Rodolfo in “Rapallo”, Italy. Stewart found an inner peace while he was there; Rodolfo listened without passing judgment, letting Stewart pour out his anger and bitterness as they sailed the waters of the Mediterranean. But as with all things, this peace was short-lived. Stewart became restless for home and his mother―she was an all-consuming part of his life―he needed to return, he had been away too long. So in the late summer of 1784, he set sail for England.
Stewart stirred slightly, pushing his hands up under the pillow. The sun felt warm and luxurious as its rays beat down on his back. Stewart Hamilton was twenty-four years of age and handsome, a fact he knew only too well, inheriting his mother’s thick black hair and deep blue eyes. His slim agile frame stood over six feet in height, with broad shoulders and a lean strong body, excelling in most sports, like riding and fencing. His face was rather lean in appearance, almost rugged, with a finely chiselled chin which had a slight cleft, and while his nose was straight and aquiline, it was inclined to turn up at the tip. A small black moustache-fringed full lips, and when he smiled, they exposed two rows of perfectly even white teeth. Most women were attracted to him like bees are to
the honey pot, and men despised him for the same reason―a fact that Stewart was very much aware of and played it many times to his advantage. In such company, he had an enigmatic smile, but one which never touched his eyes―these always remained sharp and alert to his surroundings. His true smile, which set alight his deep blue eyes and opened a window into his soul, was used only for those that he loved. His manner towards his fellow men made enemies of them, and while women worshiped him, he was closed to many as they only reached the surface, never penetrating to the sweetness within.
There was only one woman who could understand his dark temperament: his mother. Just by looking at him, it seemed, she could read his inner-most thoughts. They had a bond which transcended that of mother and son, and Stewart revered her. To him, her smile was like the kiss of a warm summer breeze, and her touch a comforting angel in times of trouble and darkness. After the desertion of his father when Stewart was just three years old, they became so inseparable that people whispered it was un-natural and unhealthy for a child to be that close, but both mother and son had witnessed things that Elizabeth would be haunted by, and Stewart would trap into the far most corners of his mind. People would often talk of his sanity, yet he was to prove them wrong in the years to come.
Stewart moaned and turned over, stretching his left arm as he did so across the bed. He lay there in a half sleeping daze with his eyes trying to focus onto the canopy above him, letting his mind wander back over the events of the previous evening. Oh God, he had got so drunk! Looking about him now he could see the detritus of clothes decorating the floor; he certainly didn’t remember getting home or into bed. Stewart raised his head but immediately let it fall back onto the pillow again as a striking pain stabbed at the back of his eyes. Somewhere in the distance birds chirped merrily, and he thought how was it they could be so cheerful when his head felt like it had drums inside it.
‘Damn drink,’ he muttered. ‘God, why do you have to drink so much?’ But he knew the answer without having to voice it.
Little things were coming back in waves now, especially Maggie with that soft comforting voice and her long, sweet smelling auburn hair which was always so silky. Stewart breathed in and smiled in remembrance; she was a good woman―Maggie―like Mother in some ways―all heart. He felt a pang of guilt thinking how he had intended to visit her that previous evening, but the stop in Mere at the Angel Inn had prevented that. The pull of the ale and friends’ company had been too strong to resist, particularly after the hot and dusty coach journey from Exeter. Pulling the pillow from under his head, he pushed it down over his face, trying to block out the sun and the unwanted memories that were now returning.
‘You use her and she does not deserve it,’ he murmured into the pillow, as if by saying it, it would render legitimacy to how he behaved. He had met the Lady Margaret Stanhope not long after returning from Italy, having gone to her home with his cousin Alexander Hamilton―a relative on his grandfather’s side of the family. Alexander knew her from London, where she had been married from an early age to a man many years her senior. It had by no means been a love
marriage, but a “grand match” which would secure her for life (as her father so delicately put it). Her husband, Lord Stanhope, had died two years previous in 1784, leaving Margaret a home in London, as well as a fine house not far from the town of Mere. It was in this house at a dinner party she had held that Stewart was introduced to her by Alexander.
Lady Margaret was a strikingly beautiful young woman, slim in stature, just a little over medium in height and very elegant. Her hair was one of her most redeeming features; thick, curly and deep auburn in colour it had a distinct lustre to it, which only enhanced the translucent creaminess of her skin―skin that most auburn haired people are blessed with―and eyes the colour of emeralds. Her facial features were soft with high cheek bones, a small nose, a full pink mouth and long elegant neck, but her qualities went far beyond her appearance, and Stewart knew this well.
Stewart closed his eyes and sighed. ‘Ah, Maggie, you never question me, pursue me, or want anything from me except my company... You comfort me and expect nothing in return except... kindness...’
Stewart’s thoughts were suddenly interrupted and drawn to other sounds coming from the garden beneath his window. He sat up slowly, leaning on his elbow, straining his ears, then grinned with pleasure on hearing his mother’s voice ring out in clear syllables from below.
Elizabeth Hamilton was almost the antithesis to her son. She was small and slim in stature, but moved with a grace of those much taller than herself. Though pale in complexion, her facial features were soft and gentle to the eye, and when she smiled, she had a way of radiating kindness. In her appearance she was neatly dressed in style, though not always in the first mode of fashion. Elizabeth Hamilton was a well-respected person within the society she walked in.
‘Oh, there you are, Spike,’ Elizabeth called breathlessly, seeing her gardener weeding amidst the flower beds. She watched him for some moments as his fingers deftly separated them from the flowers, turning over the earth around the plant where it had become compacted.
Spike turned and looked up at his mistress as she stood there smiling at him; he had known her since he was a young lad when he had first been taken onto the estate to work with his father―who had been head gardener to Lady Elizabeth’s father before him. He had lived in a small cottage on the estate since he was born, and then with his wife who had worked as housekeeper for Elizabeth. Sadly, Spike’s wife had been dead some four years now, taken with the sweating sickness that had claimed many in that area then, and as they had never been blessed with children, he lived alone.
Elizabeth had grown up with him and there was more than just a bond of servant and master―he was almost regarded as one of her family. Even his name was a “nickname” given to him by Elizabeth, as when he was young, he had an uncontrollable piece of hair that stood up on the crown of his head (hair that had long since gone). Elizabeth would tease him, and the name had stuck. Spike’s real name was John Wood, a man of 49 years of age, thick set, muscular even,
and medium in height, though from years of working in the gardens his shoulders had taken on the stoop of his manual labours.
‘Thank goodness I have found you,’ she continued. ‘We have some guests coming for dinner this evening and I need some flowers for the table.’
Spike stopped his weeding and stood up, taking off his hat and nodding to Elizabeth. It was hot in the garden and Spike had the sleeves of his shirt pushed up, pulling them down quickly he spoke.
Looking at her he noticed the frown that always appeared across her small forehead when she was confronted with the unexpected; it wrinkled the place just between her eyebrows.
‘Could you pick some for me please, and I will see that they are arranged?’ Elizabeth asked, turning her eyes searching the numerous flower beds, whilst drumming her fingers lightly over her cheek.
Spike watched her; this was another trait she had when she was perplexed or thrown off guard as she was now.
‘Oh, Spike, which ones?’ she turned to face him. ‘It is Milady Morris, you know―’ Elizabeth broke off in mid-sentence thinking why Eleanor Morris had put it upon herself to call on her at such short notice―another prospective daughter-in-law no doubt.
Spike smiled. ‘If I may be suggesting, Mistress, roses?’ he replied in his soft Wiltshire lilt. ‘They be at their best this time of year’―Spike inhaled deeply―‘smell their fragrances,’ he added as he closed his eyes. It was true the air around them was pungent with it, and the heat of the day only seemed to add to the heady bouquet. A smile of relief came across Elizabeth’s face as he said this.
‘Milady Morris always admires your roses,’ she replied as she nodded slowly and smiled; this pleased him, as he knew he had made the right choice.
‘Spike, thank you,’ she added, resting her hand on his arm, looking warmly into the weather-beaten face. ‘You always have such impeccable taste, Spike.’
A slow smile came across Spike’s face in response. ‘I will be picking them directly, Mistress,’ he added, giving a small nod, and placing his hat back on his head he turned to go. ‘Impeccable taste, aye,’ he mumbled happily to himself, turning back once more to look at his mistress. Spike knew her secret from that night twenty-one years past; he had done what he could for her then, and would do it all again if asked. He would defend her to the death if needs be, and if any man so much as laid a finger on her, well he would kill them with his own bare hands. He could feel them now clenching to fists at his sides as he remembered. Spike took a deep, slow breath, letting the memories and the anger slip away from him until he relaxed, and then picking up his step, he continued on his way to cut the roses.
Just as Elizabeth turned to go to the kitchen, Stewart’s voice called to her, stopping her.
‘Good morning, Mother!’ Elizabeth’s head swung round in surprise, her eyes immediately resting on Stewart’s tanned form as he leaned from his bedroom window above.
‘Oh, good morning, Stewart.’ She paused to shelter her eyes with her hand from the sun’s glare. ‘Did you sleep well?’ she added in jest.
Stewart smiled; he could sense the intonation of those words. ‘As sound as the dead,’ came the reply.
‘I left word with Pip not to wake you; was the journey bad?’ she added with concern.
Stewart grinned, as his eyes took in the sereneness of his Mother, there could be a raging storm in her head, but one would never know from her seemingly calm appearance.
‘Mother dear,’ he paused shaking his head a little, ‘sometimes I think you know my mind better than I,’ answered Stewart thoughtfully. As he sat there now looking down at her, he could feel that powerful bond that bound them, like an invisible umbilical cord that could never be severed. Was this something that every mother and son experienced? After all, he had only had his mother beside him for guidance; his father? Well, that was another life. Elizabeth frowned as she watched him, and he noticed a look of apprehension come over her face,
‘Never mind,’ he continued, dismissing the subject hastily, before questions were asked.
‘So we are to have Milady Eleanor Morris to dinner?’ he asked. Who else has she to parade before me? he added under his breath. There had been a long procession of future wives of late and he was in no mood to be polite this day.
At the mention of food, Elizabeth’s mouth opened.
‘Stewart, you must be hungry,’ she paused. ‘I am on my way to the kitchen now to discuss tonight’s food, shall I ask Mrs Cottle to prepare you something to eat?’
‘NO,’ came Stewart’s quick reply. ‘No,’ he repeated softening his tone. ‘No, thank you.’ His stomach churned at the thought of it.
‘I could not eat a morsel,’ he added, putting his hand up and rubbing his brow. Mrs Cottle’s food at any time of day was mouth-watering but at this moment, his head or the foul taste in his mouth would not let him swallow a mouthful. Besides, Mrs Cottle would find a way of making him pay for having to find him breakfast at midday. Stewart chuckled to himself then took a lungful of clean air to clear his head. ‘I will saddle my horse and go for a ride, Mother; this day is too glorious to waste by lying in bed.’ Waving to her, he stepped back into his room.
As Pip entered the kitchen, Mrs Cottle turned to look at him. ‘He be awake then, Mr Pip.’
Pip smiled slightly and nodded.
‘And you be wanting a bowl of hot water, no?’ she added.
‘If you would be so kind, Mrs Cottle,’ Pip replied.
‘Hmmm... If it were me, I would be throwing cold water over him. Such a commotion last night, you cannot be telling me that my Mistress be hearing none of it.’ She stood there with her fists on her hips shaking her head.
‘That young man needs a wife, only that will curb his exuberance.’
Pip chuckled to himself and shook his head. ‘I be doubting that very much, Mrs Cottle.’
Mrs Cottle was a lady of ample proportions, with light brown hair and eyes to match. Although of the same age as her mistress, she looked much older. Outwardly, she gave the impression of a very stern matriarch, but under her brusqueness was a warm, gentle loving character, who when worried or upset gave the appearance of someone very angry.
Violet Cottle clucked her tongue as she lifted a bowl from the wall and filled it with hot water. ‘He be a trial to my Mistress ever since he was but a small lad. Master Pip, I do not be knowing how you be keeping your temper with him.’
Pip took the bowl from her, smiled and inclined his head. ‘I thank you kindly, Mrs Cottle,’ saying this, he left.
As Stewart stepped back into the room, Pip entered, carrying towels over his arm and the large bowl of steaming water, pausing slightly as he entered to survey the room. Pip, whose real name was Peter Wickens, was a man in his late 40s, slightly thickset, and shorter than average, with plain features; a nose a little larger than his face should have, but with sharp eyes that missed nothing.
‘Good morning, master Stewart,’ he greeted bowing. ‘I trust we be feeling a little better this morning.’ Pip added, putting his head to one side and raising his eyebrows. Stewart’s eyes narrowed, immediately filling with mischief.
‘Why, you old rogue, so it was you who put me to bed, though you might have taken my breeches off,’ Stewart exclaimed.
Pip stopped where he was, closed his eyes and took a breath. He had been Stewart’s valet since he was 13 years old, but had known him since he was as a young boy, and a very difficult boy he had been, but he hoped by now that he had earned Stewart’s respect, as on many an occasion Stewart had turned to him for guidance, counted on him, knew that he would never lie to him, and could always rely on his discretion.
‘If you be permitting me to say so, sir,’ Pip continued. ‘When trying to...’ he paused, thinking carefully before he spoke. ‘After I be undressing the rest of you,’ Pip cleared his throat and eyed his master, ‘with some difficulty may I add, I did be receiving an unkindly boot in my stomach. You then be proceeding to be telling me―if I may be using your very words, sir―‘get your bloody hands off me, I WANT MAGGIE.’ Pip paused for effect. The last three words were drawn out with distinction. ‘Whoever Maggie may be?’ he questioned; raising his brows once more he walked to the dresser, placing the bowl and towels down.
Stewart’s eyes widened then narrowed. ‘Good God, was I that bad?’ he questioned.
Pip smiled as he looked out onto the gardens. If only you knew, he thought to himself. There had been one mighty struggle just trying to keep him in the room, then he had passed out on the bed. ‘Not really, sir, you do not be throwing the candle stick at me on this occasion,’ he replied, turning to look at him.
Stewart looked hard and long at the man; he knew that Pip disapproved of his behaviour, which had become increasingly worse since his return from Italy. The man did not deserve to be treated like that. Stewart nodded, then walked across the room and placed his arm about the small man’s shoulders.
‘Pip, you are the epitome of diplomacy,’ offered Stewart with the hint of teasing in his voice, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth, then adding rather sheepishly, ‘My mother does not know any of this, does she?’
Pip smiled again for a moment then straightened his face before he replied.
‘No, sir,’ Pip assured him, as he stared up into Stewart’s face. He too, like others, had seen and heard too much, but out of loyalty not only for Stewart but all the family, had said nothing.
Stewart moved away and paused before he asked the next question. ‘Tell me, Pip, did I say anything else I should not have?’ Stewart eyed Pip with a sideward glance.
‘No, sir, you then be passing out cradling the pillow,’ Pip replied.
Stewart laughed in relief; he knew his tongue got the better of him when he drank, and as he did not remember what had happened. Well, he slapped Pip on the back, thinking how blessed he was with such loyalty.
‘Do you wish me to be shaving you now, Master Stewart?’ Pip asked, as he walked towards the closet for a fresh linen shirt and breeches.
There was a moment’s pause as Stewart seated himself in front of his mirror; rubbing his hand over the black grown of beard which was beginning to show.
‘Pip, I think I will grow a beard,’ he replied musingly. Stewart looked at his reflection as he said it, but Pip just closed his eyes, shook his head, sighed deeply and laid the clean things onto the bed.
‘As you wish,’ he said in resignation―he had been through this scenario before.
Stewart sat looking at his face. ‘I know that you do not approve, but I thought it would look rather different,’ he offered.
‘Hairy be the word that comes to mind, sir,’ Pip responded, a feint trace of a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
‘I used to have one, you remember, during the time I spent in Italy,’ replied Stewart, turning in his chair to look at him.
Pip paused before replying, ‘Master Stewart, that be when you spent most of your time aboard ship, sir, there were not much need for such toiletries then. But, if I may be so bold, you be home, and while a moustache is quite acceptable, a full beard could be seen as...’ Pip held up his hands and the rest of the sentence was left in the air.
‘And we do not want my reputation to be enhanced any more than it is,’ finished Stewart. For a moment there was silence while Stewart re-examined his chin, thinking all the while was it worth the argument, and having decided it was not, he tucked the white towel around his neck.
‘You know that I can never argue with you, Pip, then let us be truthful, I would never win anyway,’ Stewart exclaimed, chuckling. ‘Come on, shave me and my moustache, you old rogue!’
The wind blew warm into Stewart’s face, ruffling his hair, and billowing out the wide sleeves of his shirt as he raced through the countryside. Everywhere the sun came through the trees like streaks of gold, casting its glow to whatever it touched, while the grass all around lay like a thick green undulating carpet, the breeze tipping its blades showing a multitude of greens and yellows as the sunlight refracted at different angles. Stewart breathed in deeply; the air smelt sweet and warm, for it was days such as this that it felt so good to be alive. Reining his horse down to a trot, he came to a halt by the lake, where he sat for a while taking in the beauty of the countryside, breathing deeply once again, letting his senses take over, filing his mind and head with the beauty of the moment. If there was heaven, then surely this was it. Patting his horse on the neck, he dismounted and walked slowly to the lake’s edge, stooping to pick up a stone on the way.
‘Is this not the most beautiful, the most peaceful and relaxing place we know, old friend?’ he said, turning to his horse that was busy pawing the ground with his front hooves, nibbling now and then contentedly at the leaves of a low- hanging branch of a tree nearby. Stewart allowed his eyes to roam slowly around the lake, taking in every detail. He knew the countryside hereabouts like his own lands―beautiful, virgin country. Before he went to Italy, there were times in the summer months when he would steal out of the house and come here to sleep by the lake under the stars. Nobody, not even Pip (he thought), knew about this. It was his secret, about the only one he had, as everything else he did was known the second after it had happened. He chuckled to himself like a small schoolboy, pleased that he had managed to keep it for so long.
‘La mia baia di pace,’ he whispered.
No sooner had the words left his lips than he became suddenly aware that he was not alone. He felt a presence just behind him to the right, and although they were very still, he could still feel them watching him. Frowning, he reached up and scratched the side of his face. Stewart gradually lowered himself to the ground and sat there for some minutes, his knees pulled up in front of him, while his fingers picked at the blades of grass beneath his hands, aware of the pair of eyes that watched his every move.