When I wrote the ‘Meadowvale’ books and ‘A Time to Mend’, I intentionally left some loose ends to develop into plot lines for future novels.
One of those ‘loose ends’ was the story of Beth Robinson (who is mentioned a few times in passing in ‘A Time to Mend’, but makes many appearances in the ‘Meadowvale’ books.
Beth’s story, and the story of her great-grandmother, Joanna Robinson, might appear somewhat tangential to the main plot of the ‘Meadowvale’ books and ‘ATTM’, but I always knew I would develop them and take them further.
I have now begun to work on that project, and I am going to post a few chapters here as a teaser. Not the whole book, you understand (it probably won’t be done for a year or so); just a teaser to get you interested.
Rachel Robinson died on July 5. The pneumonia that had first shown up in March proved persistent and stubborn, and she never really got rid of it. By the middle of June she was completely bedridden, and she was finding it increasingly difficult to talk due to shortness of breath and constant coughing.
Her family members tried to make sure she was never left alone. Her granddaughter Kathy Janzen worked in the office at the special care home, and she looked in on her several times a day. Beth’s father Don, the principal of Meadowvale High School, stopped by almost every evening, sometimes alone and sometimes with his wife Lynda or his sister Ruth Janzen. Ruth visited her mother every morning, and Rachel’s other two children, Steve and Jean, who lived further away, also made trips to see her. Beth’s sister Amy came over from Calgary for a week with her two young children, Chelsey and Nick. And Rachel’s younger sister Sally Reimer, now seventy-six and in increasing pain from osteoarthritis, came with her husband Will at least a couple of times a week.
Beth spent as much time as she could with her grandmother. She usually worked three or four twelve-hour shifts a week at Meadowvale and District Hospital, and she was always tired when she got home. Nevertheless, even on her working days she tried to stop by for at least half an hour with Rachel, and on her days off she came either by herself or with Claire.
At the end of June Rachel was transferred to the hospital, where she spent the last week of her life. By now she was heavily sedated and rarely awake, and visits from most of her family members became much shorter. There was a small group, however, who were quite happy to sit in silence beside her bed and hold her hand; this group mainly consisted of Sally Reimer, Ruth Janzen, and Beth and her father Don.
As June turned to July, Beth began to get more and more worried about her commitment to attending Emma Masefield’s wedding in England. When Emma was little, Beth had been her babysitter; the two of them had become very close friends over the years, and Beth, who had never visited England, was really looking forward to the trip. She knew she was not the only one; Emma’s grandparents Will and Sally Reimer, and her aunt and uncle Joe and Ellie Reimer and their children Jake and Jenna were also planning to attend. There had already been whispered conversations on the subject in the hospital hallways and little chats at the Meadowvale Beanery, the favourite coffee shop for the younger element in Meadowvale.
Emma herself was very clear about it when she was talking to Beth on the phone. “You do what you need to do, Beth,” she said. “I’ll be sad if you’re not here, but we’re not always in control of everything in our lives, and your grandma was your best friend.”
“I really don’t want to miss your wedding, Em.”
“I understand, but I know you well enough to know you’d never forgive yourself if your grandma died and you weren’t with her.”
Beth was quiet for a moment, struggling to control her emotions. Eventually she said, “Sorry—I almost lost it there.”
“No need to apologize.”
“You’re right, of course. How did you get to be so wise, Emma Masefield?”
“Might be something to do with my very wise babysitter.”
Beth laughed. “Sometimes I don’t feel very wise—and if I am, it’s mainly to do with my grandma.”
“If she’s still alive the week of my wedding, I think you should stay, Beth. Stay with her, and give her my love if she’s still conscious. I’ve told my grandma the same thing; Rachel’s her sister, and she should be with her. I know Jenna and Jake are still coming, along with their parents.”
“Jenna’s going to be your maid of honour, I hear.”
“Yes, she is. All my cousins are going to be here, so I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me, Beth; do what you have to do, and come over when you can.”
“I will definitely do that. As soon as I can get over, I will.”
“You take care. Call me whenever you feel like it, okay?”
Rachel died in her hospital room early on the morning of July 5, with three of her four children around her, along with Beth and her cousin Kathy. She had been conscious on and off through the night, but her breathing had become more and more laboured, and she had spoken her last words to her daughter Ruth at about three in the morning, before slipping off into a sleep from which she never woke up. At about six o’clock Doctor DeVries checked her pulse and nodded silently to the family; “It’s over,” she said. Beth felt something welling up inside her chest, and she quickly turned to her father and buried her face in his shoulder. She felt his arms around her, and for several minutes he held her silently while she cried.
Eventually she looked up at him through her tears, nodding gratefully. “Are you okay, Dad?”
“I will be,” he replied, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.
Beth turned to her mother, and for a moment they held each other close. Eventually Beth stepped back; “I should call Amy,” she said.
“Are you sure?” her father asked. “I was going to do that.”
“I’d like to, if you don’t mind.”
“No, I don’t mind. You go ahead.”
“Thanks; I’ll do it now.”
She stepped out of the room into the corridor; it was still early, and very few people were awake yet. She smiled at a couple of the nurses finishing their night shift, walked quickly down to the front lobby, pushed open the glass doors and stepped out into the brightness of the summer morning. The hospital was on the edge of town, and looking west she could see wide open fields. Taking her cell phone from her pocket, she turned it on and called her sister’s number. The phone was answered after the first ring, and she heard Amy’s sleepy voice. “Hi Beth; is there news?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry, Amy—Grandma died a few minutes ago.”
For a moment there was silence, and when Amy spoke again her voice was unsteady. “Are you okay, Bethie?”
“I’ll be okay. She told me a few days ago she was ready to go, and she wasn’t afraid.”
“Were you with her?”
“I was. So were Dad and Mom, and a few others.”
“I’m really sorry I wasn’t there.”
“Are you still coming today?”
“Yeah; the kids and I are getting into Saskatoon about four o’clock. Can you pick us up at the airport?”
“Sure. There are things we need to talk about, Amy.”
“There’s some stuff Grandma told me a couple of months ago that I want to talk to you about. You’ll stay at my place, right?”
“Of course.” Amy was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “I know this is really hard for you; no one was as close to her as you were.”
Beth felt the tears in her eyes again. “Yes,” she whispered. “It hurts like hell.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too. Have a safe flight.”
“I will; ‘bye now.”
Back in the room Beth saw that her parents and Ruth were talking quietly with the doctor. Kathy was standing beside the bed looking down at Rachel’s peaceful face, and Beth noticed immediately that someone had removed the oxygen line her grandmother had been wearing. She crossed to the bed and stood beside her cousin, putting her arm around her waist. “She looks so lovely,” she whispered.
“She does.” Kathy turned and put her arms around Beth. “You okay?”
“I’ll be okay. I should get over to your place and make sure Claire’s all right.”
“Don’t worry; Jamie’s there with her and Aidan, but as far as I know they’re both still sleeping. He’d call if anything was wrong.”
Beth felt a hand on her shoulder, and when she looked up her father was standing there. “Did you get through to Amy?” he asked.
“Are they coming today?”
“She and the kids are flying into Saskatoon around four. I told her I’d go down to the city and pick her up.”
“Is she going to stay at your place?”
“Is that okay with you and Mom?”
“Sure—we know you guys will need some sister time.”
“Thanks, Dad. So, what’s next?”
“We’ll arrange for the funeral home to pick Mom up, then I expect we should call Pastor Ron and arrange for a service.”
“I could set that up; I’ll give him a call later on if you like.”
“Okay. There’s a few other things to deal with, like cleaning up her room at the special care home, but we don’t have to think about that right away. Ruth’s invited us to her place for some breakfast first.”
Beth put her hand on his arm. “Dad, before we start cleaning up Grandma’s room, I need to ask you about a box in her closet.”
“Grandma told me a couple of months ago that there’s a box of old journals in the closet that she wanted me to have. She said it’s in her will that they’re to come to me. Do you mind if I have a look today and make sure they’re still there?”
“That’s fine; are the journals hers?”
“No, they’re older than that. Apparently they belonged to Great-Grandma Robinson.”
He raised an eyebrow. “No kidding!”
“That’s what she told me.”
“I had no idea she had anything like that. So she left them to you, eh?”
“Do you want to go and have a look right away?”
“Well, after breakfast, maybe.”
“Alright. If you don’t mind, I’ll come with you.”
“Of course I don’t mind. To be honest, I always felt a little awkward about it.”
“Yeah—about the fact that she told me about them, but she hadn’t told you.”
“That does seem a little strange.”
And so in the middle of the morning Beth went over to the special care home with her father and her aunt. Nothing had been moved at all in old Rachel’s room, and Don looked around, taking in the furniture, the pictures on the walls and the two bookshelves crammed full of books. “She got rid of a lot of her books when she moved in here,” he said, “but there’s still plenty to go around.”
“You and Beth and Amy had better go through them,” said Ruth. “I can’t see Kathy or Rhonda wanting any of them, and Joel’s too far away.”
“Let’s have a look for these journals,” said Don.
They went over to the closet, and he opened the concertina doors. A few articles of clothing were hanging there, including a winter parka at one end, and there was a shelf unit with shoes and boots. Three cardboard file boxes were stacked in the corner; there was writing on two of them, but in the dim light it was hard to read. Don went over to the door and turned on the overhead light; Beth was already kneeling, her eyes straining to read the faded writing on the bottom box. “Joanna Robinson – journals,” she read.
“Let’s have a look,” said Don, crouching down beside her.
They lifted off the two other boxes and pulled the bottom one out of the closet. Don picked it up, took it over to the bed and set it down. He stepped back and nodded at Beth. “Go ahead, Bethie,” he said.
The cardboard file box had a removable lid with an envelope taped on top. Beth removed the envelope, opened it, and took out a single sheet of paper in her grandmother’s handwriting. It said simply, “These are the journals of my mother-in-law, Joanna Robinson (née Rowley), 1905-1990. They have been in my possession since my husband died, and I now bequeath them to my granddaughter, Bethany Ann Robinson. Signed, Rachel Ann Robinson, March 2nd, 2008.”
Beth handed the paper to her father, and he read it and passed it to his sister. “She’s known for a while she was going to give them to you, then,” he said to Beth.
Beth lifted the lid off the box; inside were four closely stacked piles of old journals, mostly five by eight notebooks, with another sheet of paper on top, also in Rachel’s handwriting. It said simply, “Beth: I have sorted the journals into chronological order. The pile with the red journal on top contains the oldest ones. The red journal is first.”
The stiff paper cover of the red journal had faded with age, but it was still possible to read the handwritten title on the front:
Joanna Elizabeth Rowley
January 2nd 1918 to February 17th 1921
Beth showed it to her father, and he nodded; “She’d be about twelve or thirteen, then, when she started it.”
“Yes.” Beth sat down on the bed, opened the book, and read aloud from the first entry, written in faded ink in an immaculate copperplate hand.
“Wednesday January Second Nineteen-Eighteen.
“Today I decided to start a diary, and since one day someone else might read it, I will start by introducing myself. I am Joanna Elizabeth Rowley. I was born on May Twenty-Fifth nineteen-oh-five. My papa is Sir Robert Rowley, owner of Holton Park Estate, and my mama’s name is Lady Rowena Rowley. I am the youngest child. My oldest brother, Edward Rowley, was killed in action in France on August Thirty-First nineteen-seventeen. He was twenty years old. Second is my sister Edith who is eighteen years old. My brother James is now heir to the estate; he is fifteen. I am the fourth and last child.
“We live at Holton House, Bramthorpe, Lincolnshire. It is a very old house with many rooms. I have my own horse and I like to ride, but my governess, Miss Halliday, will only let me ride twice a week. She teaches me lessons every morning and afternoon. James is away at Eton, and Edith spends a lot of time in London, so I am often alone with Miss Halliday, Mama and Papa, and the servants. I like reading so I do not often get bored, but I am sometimes lonely.
“I am woken up every day at half past eight, and my day usually starts with breakfast at nine o’clock. I am in the schoolroom from ten until one, and in the afternoon again from two until four. Sometimes if the weather is fine Miss Halliday and I will go for a walk in the afternoon instead of lessons; she likes to show me trees and plants and teach me their names, although I do not always remember what she tells me. I do like drawing and painting, though, and sometimes she lets me take a sketchbook with me on our walks. On Tuesdays and Fridays, we ride in the afternoons if it is not raining. At half past five we wash and then we dress for tea. Miss Halliday and I have our tea at six o’clock. Mama and Papa dine much later, at eight o’clock, but by then I am getting ready for bed. I am usually in bed by nine o’clock, but I do not go to sleep very easily. I like it best in the summer when it is still light outside, and I can read my book after I go to bed. Now it is winter, and the evenings are dark. I have electricity in my room but if I turn the light on someone will see it under the door. Sometimes I light my candle again and read for a little while, but if I do that too often, they will notice that my candle has burned down.
“On Sundays we go to church in the morning in Bramthorpe. Our vicar is Mr. Skelton. I believe in God, and I like singing the hymns, but Mr. Skelton’s sermons are long, and I must confess that sometimes I fall asleep while he is speaking. Our family sits in the front pew, so everyone can see it when I fall asleep, and Papa always scolds me. This year I am going to be confirmed, and Mr. Skelton is going to come to our house to teach me confirmation classes. I am not looking forward to this.
“There are many servants in our house. Our butler is called Brookes; he is in charge of all the servants. Our housekeeper is Mrs. Ridgeway. Papa has a valet and Mama has a lady’s maid, and now that Edith is out, she also has a lady’s maid. There are also two footmen, a cook and at least two kitchen maids, and some others who I do not see very often. Outside there is a stable master and some grooms who look after our horses, and some gardeners and groundskeepers as well. I do not know all their names. I do know that our stable master is Sellars and the groom who looks after my horse is called Peter. I like talking to him because he obviously really loves horses, but Miss Halliday says I should not be too familiar with him, as he is just a servant, and I am a young lady. I wish I could go out to the stables sometimes and help them feed and brush down the horses, but I am not allowed to do this.
“We have just finished the Christmas holidays. We did not go away this year; usually we go to Devon to stay with my aunt and uncle, but Papa said we were not going this year because of the war. Actually, I think he and Mama are still too sad about Edward being killed, and they did not want to be around other people where they would have to pretend to be happy. I had not seen Edward much since he went away to join the army a year ago, but I was very upset when I heard that he had been killed and I really do miss him. I cried in my bed every night for weeks and weeks. Several young men from our village have been killed or injured in the war. Papa told me he is keeping a list, and when the war is over, he will pay to have a memorial put up on the wall of the church. I hope the war is over soon or it will be a very long list.
“I am going to write this diary every night before I say my prayers. Miss Halliday used to say prayers with me, but after my eleventh birthday she told me she would leave me to pray by myself. I am not sure that prayers do any good; I prayed that God would look after Edward, but He did not answer that prayer. But since there is nothing else I can do to make the war end sooner, I will still say my prayers. I will write more tomorrow.”
Beth looked up from the journal, and Ruth stared at her brother. “Our grandmother was the daughter of a landed aristocrat?”
“Seems like it. I had no idea.”
“Me neither. How on earth did she come to marry a poor farmer and move to Saskatchewan?”
“I don’t know; do you, Beth?”
Beth nodded. “Grandma told me a little about it; she’d read the journals herself.”
Don frowned. “Are we going to find any more surprises in here?”
“Probably, but I’d like to look a little more closely at them before I say anything more.”
“I see.” For a moment he looked steadily at her, and she returned his gaze. Then he nodded. “Okay, honey; you take them and have a look at them by yourself. But I’d like to read them too; there are things I’ve wondered about my grandparents.”
“I understand, Dad.”
He was still looking her in the eye. “Your grandma told you quite a lot about what’s in these journals, didn’t she?”
Don looked down at the box on the bed. “I wish she’d told the rest of us about this.”
“I think she had a reason, Dad—more of a reason than the fact that she and I were so close.”
“Yeah. She told me your dad thought the journals should have been destroyed; he thought the past should stay in the past. I think while he was alive, she didn’t feel free to talk to anyone about them. And I think even after he died, she struggled between loyalty to his wishes and a desire to pass the stories on.”
“That must have been quite a conversation you had with her.”
Beth shook her head. “Dad, I don’t want this to be a thing between us, okay? It wasn’t my idea for Grandma to keep this between the two of us. She’d decided she wanted to give me the journals, and she didn’t feel right about telling anyone else. Please don’t blame me for it, okay?”
Don gave a sudden smile and held out his arms; “Come here.”
She stood up and moved gratefully into his embrace, and for a moment he held her tight. “We all know you and Mom had a very special relationship, Beth,” he said.
“And we also know she could be a little eccentric sometimes,” said Ruth, her hand on Beth’s shoulder. ‘You take these journals and read through them, Bethie. Sure, your dad and I would like to take a look at them too, but Mom left them to you and I sure don’t want to do anything to piss her off, even though she’s dead!”
They all laughed, and Don kissed his daughter on the forehead. “Do you want to take the box with you now?”
“Yeah; I’ll put it in the car and take it home right away. I just wanted to make sure the journals were safe.” She stepped back and smiled at Don and Ruth. “Thanks; I’ve been feeling more than a little apprehensive about this.”
Ruth shook her head; “No need, at least not on my part.”
“Nor mine,” Don agreed. “If Mom was still alive, I might have wanted to have a conversation with her about this, but like Ruth said, we’ll do what she wanted, just like we always did!”
They laughed again, and Don bent and lifted the box off the bed. “Let me carry this to the car for you,” he said.
Claire was an outgoing and demonstrative child, and she did not hide her excitement when she saw her Auntie Amy coming through the doors into the airport arrivals area with three-year-old Chelsey’s hand in hers, one-year-old Nicholas on her front in a child carrier, and a large bag slung over her shoulder. Amy’s thick blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail; her face was a little fuller than Beth’s, but she had the same sharp chin and grey eyes. Claire squealed with delight, tugged her hand free from her mother’s, and ran up to give Amy a hug.
“Wow, the royal welcome!” said Amy. “You’d think I’d been away for years!”
“Well, she hasn’t seen you guys for a month,” Beth replied as Claire took Chelsy’s other hand.
“I’m not complaining!” Amy leaned down, kissed her niece on the cheek and said, “How are you doing, munchkin?”
“Good! Are you guys staying at our house?”
Amy and Beth kissed each other, and Beth smiled at the sleeping one-year old in the child carrier. “Did he sleep through the flight?”
“Fell asleep during take-off.” Amy looked her sister in the eye. “Tough day?”
“I haven’t been thinking about it. I was with Kathy and Jamie most of the day.”
“Are Mom and Dad at home?”
“Yeah. I set up a meeting with Pastor Ron tomorrow, and Dad and Auntie Ruth are going to take the lead on that. They’re also dealing with the funeral home and the lawyer, though I think Grandma’s will is pretty straightforward.”
“Is Glenn her lawyer?”
“Yeah. And what about Luke; is he coming over?”
“I’m supposed to call him as soon as we know when the funeral will be. He’s going to drive over to join us the day before.”
“I assume you’ve got more luggage?”
“Just a little!”
They both laughed, knowing how much luggage small children caused. “Did you manage to squeeze three child seats into the back of your little car?” asked Amy.
“I’m driving Dad’s SUV; he and I traded cars this afternoon. He already had a child seat in the back, and I borrowed an old one of Kathy’s.”
“I didn’t think you’d be bringing Claire down to meet us.”
“Neither did I, but she made such a fuss about coming to meet Chelsey and Nick that I gave in.”
“They’ll be glad of the company in the back on the way home.”
“That’s what I thought, too.”
By the time they got back to Meadowvale it was close to six o’clock, but it was early July, and the sun was still high in the prairie sky. Beth and Amy worked together to cook a light supper in the kitchen at the back of the house, with Claire and Chelsey running in from the back yard from time to time to help out. They ate at the dining table, and then Beth did the dishes while Amy played with the children in the living room. After that, the five of them walked up the road to Don and Lynda’s house so that the children could have a visit with their grandparents. They stayed until just before nine o’clock, and then brought the children home and put them to bed.
Chelsey was camping in Claire’s room, while Nicholas would sleep in Claire’s old crib beside his mother’s bed in the spare room. Beth usually read to Claire and said prayers with her before turning out her light, but tonight, even though she was excited at having her cousin in her room with her, the little girl was exhausted, and when Beth saw that she was having trouble keeping her eyes open she cut things short, kissed both girls goodnight, and slipped quietly out of the room, pulling the door almost closed behind her.
Back in the living room Amy was sitting on the couch nursing Nicholas; she looked up at her sister and smiled. “Are they asleep?”
“I think so. You look pretty comfortable there!”
“It’s a comfortable couch.”
“Do you want a cup of herbal tea or something?”
“Sure—peppermint or chamomile or something like that.”
“Coming right up.”
Beth went out to the kitchen, boiled the kettle, and made two mugs of tea. When she brought them back into the living room Amy was just laying her sleeping son down on the couch beside her, covering him with a light blanket. “Thanks,” she said as Beth set a mug down on the coffee table in front of her.
“You must be exhausted; weren’t you up all night?”
“I was pretty sleepy this afternoon, but I seem to have hit my second wind now.”
Amy nodded at the box of journals Beth had left beside the door. “What’s in the box?”
Beth sat down in an easy chair across from her sister and put her feet up on the coffee table. “It came from Grandma. She told me about it a couple of months ago, but I only picked it up this morning from her room at the special care home. It’s full of old journals; they belonged to Great-Grandma Robinson.”
“Wow! She was the first generation to come to Canada, right?”
“Did you know she’d left journals behind?”
“Not until Grandma told me back in March. She’s been keeping it to herself, and she didn’t want me to make a big noise about it either. Apparently she’s had them since Great-Grandma died.”
“Why didn’t she tell anyone?”
“There was a disagreement between her and Grandpa about what should be done with the journals. He thought the past should stay in the past, and he wanted them destroyed, but Grandma thought they should be preserved and passed on.”
“She won, apparently.”
“Yeah, but it bothered her, and even after he died, she felt guilty about telling anyone. That’s why she waited so long to pass them on.”
“Did Dad know?”
“No; he found out this morning when I told him.”
“That must have been awkward.”
“Yeah, and I feel really bad about it. Grandma left specific instructions that the journals were to go to me, and apparently she’s put that in her will. She told me she wanted me to know Joanna’s story because I’m the one who’s taken an interest in family history.”
“Not to mention the fact that she’s always had a soft spot for you.”
“I know, Amy, but I’ve never tried to take advantage of that—at least, not since I was in my teens.”
“I know. I never resented that thing you had with her, you know; I loved her of course, but I didn’t feel quite the same way about her as you did.”
“Thanks. Oh yeah—there is one other person who knew about the journals: Tom Masefield.”
Amy raised an eyebrow. “Why Tom?”
“Apparently he was a really good friend to Great-Grandma in the last few years of her life.”
“Oh yeah, I kind of remember that; didn’t he read the eulogy at her funeral?”
“I honestly don’t remember, Amy. I have absolutely no memory of her funeral.”
Amy gave her a mischievous grin. “Well, you were barely out of diapers, weren’t you?”
“I was twelve years old, thank you very much!”
“Like I said, barely out of diapers. Have you looked in the box?”
“We had a quick look this morning when Dad and Auntie Ruth and I picked them up.”
“Do you want to wait ‘til I’m gone to have another look?”
“No—let’s finish our tea, and then we’ll look at them together, if you’re interested?”
“I’m interested if you’re interested. Did Grandma say anything about what’s in them? Had she read them?”
“Yes, she read them all, and there are some surprises in them.”
“What kind of surprises?”
“Well, the biggest one is that our great-grandmother was a member of the landed gentry, and our great-grandfather was the stable groom she ran off with.”
“Seriously.” Beth recounted the story as her grandmother had told it, and when she was done, Amy sat in silence for a moment. Then she shook her head, took a sip of her tea, and said, “Well—now I’m curious. I wonder if the Rowleys are still living at that place—Holton Park, you said it was called?”
“They’re still there; I found it on the Internet. The owner’s name is Robert Rowley, but I don’t know anything about him.”
“What about the Robinson family farm—Steeple Farm, you said?”
“I don’t know; I didn’t try googling it.”
“I’d be curious about the Robinsons. I wonder if the farm’s still in their hands. If farming over there’s anything like it is here, I wouldn’t be too hopeful.”
“You could be right; they might have moved off the land by now. It might be fun to go over and investigate, don’t you think?”
Amy laughed. “What do you have in mind—walking up to the front door of Holton Park and saying, “Hello, I’m Beth Robinson, I’m your long-lost cousin from Canada, and could I please have my share of the family fortune?”
Beth gave a sudden frown. “Wow—I hadn’t thought of it like that.”
“But you’ve obviously thought of going?”
“I can’t deny that the idea of going for a look has occurred to me. I’ll be in England in about two weeks, you know.”
“Right—you and Claire are going for Emma’s wedding, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, and afterwards Tom and Wendy have promised to show me around a little.”
“Sounds like a good opportunity.” Amy drained her teacup. “Well, are we going to have a look at those journals?”
Beth brought the box into the living room, sat down on the couch beside Amy, and took out the first journal. She put her feet up again, opened the book and read the first entry aloud to her sister as she had done to her father and aunt earlier in the day. When she was done, she glanced at Amy; “What do you think?”
“She sounds quite philosophical for a twelve-year old.”
“Yeah—I don’t think I would have been writing theological reflections at that age. Have you ever kept a diary, Amy?”
“Occasionally, but I’ve never stuck with it. You?”
“Pretty much the same. Do you want me to read some more?”
“Do you mind if we skip ahead a little? I’d like to read the whole thing at some point, but for tonight I’d be really interested in the part where she first meets Great-Grandpa, and they start falling in love with each other. Do you know when that would be?”
“I think Will started working at the Holton Park stables when he was fifteen, so that would be some time in nineteen-nineteen. But they didn’t run away together to get married ’til nineteen twenty-six, so there’s a lot of ground to cover. There might be a mention of him in this journal—the cover says it lasts ’til February nineteen twenty-one.”
Beth began flipping quickly through the pages. “The first entry seems to have been unusually long,” she said. “Most of them are a lot shorter. Let’s see—here we are, January First nineteen-nineteen.” She turned the pages more slowly now, stopping every now and again to read. “She mentions going riding on January Third—no, there’s no mention of a groom.” She scanned a few more pages. “She mentions riding pretty well every time she goes out, but she doesn’t say anything about it—just ‘I went for a ride with Miss Halliday this afternoon.’ Wait—here’s a mention of the stable master:
“While Miss Halliday’s back was turned this afternoon I asked Sellars if he would let me help them brush down Diamond sometimes, or feed her. He said he wouldn’t mind but I would have to ask Papa. I will ask him tomorrow.”
“And did she?”
“Let’s see – here’s the next entry:
“Wednesday March Nineteenth nineteen-nineteen.
“I spent the morning in the schoolroom: French, Latin, and a little history. After lunch I practiced the piano for a while, then Miss Halliday left me to read some more of Oliver Twist. I am both fascinated and horrified by this novel; did people really live in the sort of squalor and suffering described here, and do they still?
“After lessons were over, I went to find Papa in the library. He was surprised to see me. I told him that I really enjoyed riding and wanted to learn more about horses and their care, so would he allow me to watch Sellars and the grooms as they rubbed Diamond down after a ride and fed her, and perhaps try to learn the things they did? To my surprise, Papa seemed pleased; he said he would talk to Sellars and Miss Halliday. He also said that he did not know I enjoyed riding so much, and that he would like it if I would ride with him sometimes. So, although I was nervous about talking to Papa, it turned out well in the end.”
“So did she start fraternizing with the servants right away?” asked Amy.
“Let’s see.” Beth scanned the next couple of pages, and after a moment she said, “Here—she mentions Sellars again.”
“Monday March Twenty-Fourth nineteen-nineteen.
“Today it was cold and windy, but nonetheless Miss Halliday and I went for our ride in the afternoon. We were very cold when we got back to the stables, but I reminded Miss Halliday that Papa had said I might stay and watch while they took care of Diamond. So she left me at the stables, and I watched while the groom took off Diamond’s saddle and gave her a rub down; he was a new groom and he took quite a long time about it, and I wondered if he might perhaps be taking longer than usual to impress me. I asked Sellars and he said, ‘Oh no, Miss Joanna—we always give her a good rub after you come back from a ride. We won’t feed her just yet, but if the master lets you come back in a couple of hours, we’ll be giving her a nice hot mash.’
“I went in and asked Papa, and he said it would be alright, so I went back out just before we dressed for dinner. Sellars was teaching the new groom how to make the hot mash; he told me they just use the normal helping of oats and add a bit of bran and garlic and mix it up with hot water. I watched while they mixed it in a green bucket, and then the groom went into Diamond’s stable and hung it on a hook on the wall. Diamond seemed to really enjoy it.
“I talked to the groom for a minute and asked him how long he had been working at Holton Park, because he didn’t seem to be much older than me. He seemed very shy around me; he said he had started only two weeks ago and that he came from one of the farms on the estate.”
Beth glanced triumphantly at Amy; “Looks like we’ve found our great-grandfather!” she said.
“For sure. Does she name him?”
“Wait a minute; let me see. Yes, here it is:
“I asked the groom his name and he said it was William Robinson; I asked him his age and he said fifteen. He was painfully shy, not looking me in the eye, and tugging at his forelock all the time, and since I was obviously embarrassing him, I stopped asking him questions. I did really enjoy watching them look after Diamond and I hope that before too long they will let me try”.
Amy smiled; “Not a very promising beginning to their relationship!”
“No; let’s see what happens next.” Beth scanned a few more pages. “She mentions riding again, and—yes, watching Sellars and William looking after Diamond. Let’s see; here’s another one:
“Friday May Thirtieth nineteen-nineteen:
“Slipped out to the stables before we changed for dinner. William let me mix the feed for Diamond and set it on the hook in her stall. I stayed with him while he and the other grooms fed the other horses as well. I asked him about his family, and he said he had three brothers and two sisters, but his oldest brother was killed in the war. He is the youngest but one. I told him that my oldest brother Edward also died in the war, in nineteen-seventeen; he told me his brother Sam was killed in one of the very first battles in nineteen-fourteen. I asked him how long it took him to get over his brother’s death, and he said he didn’t think he was over it yet. I said I felt the same.
“William’s father is the tenant farmer at Steeple Farm, so I have ridden past their farmhouse on a number of occasions. He told me he has always liked animals; he has been helping his father with the cows since he was a little boy, and of course they have horses on the farm as well. I asked him if he liked to read and he said he did, but he has very little time for it. I asked him if he had read Black Beauty and he said he had not, and he asked me what it was about. I told him some of the story and he seemed very interested. I would like to ask Papa if I could lend him my copy, but I’m afraid Papa would not like that.”
Amy laughed; “I guess not—that would be radically egalitarian!”
Beth was already reading ahead. “Looks like there won’t be any more fraternizing for a while, they’ve gone to London for the rest of the season.”
“The season? What does that mean?”
Beth laughed; “You don’t read enough Jane Austen novels! Those society families all went up to London for a few months every year; I’m not just exactly sure when, or for how long. Looks like the Rowleys went up at the beginning of June; Joanna mentions that it was unusually late for them, but she doesn’t say why.”
“What did they do in London?”
“Hang on, I’m skimming here. She mentions her parents going out to dances, but she’s too young to be invited—she’s not pleased about that. There’s Royal Ascot—I think that’s a horse racing event—yes, she mentions watching the races here. Wow, that seems to go on for a few days, four or five at least. Let’s see; pretty soon after that they’re off to Henley to watch the boat races—Royal Henley Regatta, that is. Hmm—looks like they’ve got relatives in town too, she mentions Uncle Freddie and Aunt Eleanor, there are cousins too—Sarah, George, Bertie—hmm—looks like they’re about the same age, they all seem to be hanging out together anyway. Wait—no, Sarah’s older, she’s been presented at court and she’s going to a debutante ball, I guess she must be eighteen, maybe?”
“How old is Joanna now?”
“Fourteen, I think. Ah—she refers to her Uncle Freddie here as ‘the Earl of Devon’.” Beth looked up at Amy and smiled; “Okay, looks like we are related to the nobility!”
Amy laughed. “Read on!”
Beth skimmed a few more pages. “She’s describing her reading in some detail here, she seems to be quite a bookworm. She’s still at Dickens—Bleak House—she’s been reading some Siegfried Sassoon—Counter Attack and Other Poems, she found the book at a bookshop on Euston Road. Here’s what she says:
“‘It made me think of Edward, of course, and it made me cry. I must find out more about that wretched war, because according to Sassoon’s poems it wasn’t glorious at all, and he was there so he should know.’”
She scanned the next few pages. “Mainly just London routines. She mentions the family going to church a few times—going out to the theatre and the opera and that sort of stuff. Wait—yes, she’s talking about them getting ready to go home now. Here we are, Monday August Eighteenth nineteen-nineteen, they set out on their way home.”
“How did they travel?”
“By train, I think—yes, she mentions a chauffeur driving them to King’s Cross Station. Let me see—back home, getting unpacked, etc. etc.—yes, here we are, Tuesday August Nineteenth nineteen-nineteen.
“I was glad to see Diamond again, and William seemed pleased to see me as well. He told me he had taken special care of her and had taken her for regular rides to make sure she was properly exercised. I asked after his family and he said his mother had been ill, but she seemed better now. I went for a long ride in the afternoon with Papa and Mama and James; the weather was very hot. Later, William let me rub Diamond down, and I prepared her mash and gave it to her. We talked about books, and he asked me again about Black Beauty. I have decided to lend him this book; I know he does not earn enough money to buy books for himself and it seems a great shame that someone who is so interested in bettering himself is frustrated through lack of means. I also told him about Oliver Twist and what it had to say about living conditions among the poor in London. He told me his mother had read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to her children when he was young. I think William left school when he was twelve and began to work on his father’s farm. I have had so many advantages in my life compared to him; I should be ashamed of myself for wasting so much time really. When I think of how many young men from our village were killed or injured in the war, and how many others have so little to live on, I should be doing all I can to help them and to be a useful person in the world. I don’t think Papa would approve but I’m going to lend William some books anyway; it seems the least I can do”.
“She’s growing a social conscience,” said Amy; “That’s how it started.”
“It seems so.” Beth stifled a yawn. “Shall I keep going?”
“Well, that’s up to you. Have you suddenly remembered that you didn’t sleep at all last night?”
“I think so; maybe it’s the chamomile tea and the relaxed conversation, but I’m suddenly very sleepy. I’d really like to press on with this, but maybe we should pick it up again tomorrow some time.”
“Fine with me. What’s the plan for tomorrow anyway?”
“We’re meeting with Pastor Ron at the church at two in the afternoon—Dad, Auntie Ruth, and me. I guess that’s when we’ll set the date and time for the funeral. Right now, I’ve no idea when it might be—depends how long it takes family members to get here, I guess.”
“Of course; who’s the furthest away?”
“Well, of the immediate family that would be cousin Joel, I guess.”
“Right; he’s working in Africa somewhere, isn’t he?” Amy yawned. “Okay, now you’ve got me going. Time for me to say hello to my pillow.”
Beth put the journal carefully back into the box and replaced the lid. “I’m going to take these to my room,” she said. “I don’t think the kids would get into them, but you never know.”
“Good plan.” They got to their feet and put their arms around each other. “Good night, Amy,” said Beth; “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Me too. Have a good sleep, Bethie.”