For as long as anyone of import could recall the Thompsons had enjoyed a reputation of being among the most hospitable – and therefore liked – of the larger families along the Hampshire and Wiltshire border. The village which ran up to and around the southernmost tip of the Beaufort Park estate was gifted with lavish fetes on several occasions during each year and the head of the household, the retired doctor Ernest Thompson, welcomed all to his doorstep and never turned away so much as a vagrant or a Mancunian.
The Thompson fortune came through several routes; slavery and sea cucumber cultivation – naturally -, wine production and the private practice of medicine – of course; for the grape was a fond friend to the aging ex-doctor -, and sundry enterprises for diversification was the key to success in the market after all. The Thompsons were rich and smart.
There was immense sadness when the great fire at the Christmas gala took all but one member of the family from their place on God’s soil and ushered them swiftly into Heaven. Eliza Thompson, the youngest of the nieces in residence at Beaufort Park threw herself from an open window in the east tower, saving her life but taking in so much smoke and suffering so much shock from landing on Samson, the Great Dane, that she lapsed into a coma and was taken to be looked after in a clinic in nearby Whittingdon.
In the aftermath of the blaze and quite shockingly for the gentle folk around there was surprise to discover that the dispersal of the family’s wealth was to be tied in knots for years to come following complacent will-keeping and the young girl’s lack of age. It was most unlike the Thompson family, the village muttered. Fancy not preparing for such an eventuality. But poor Eliza needed expensive care and a decision was made to sell the house – when such a feat became possible – and the land.
The house was rebuilt largely for free by the local people out of love, reverence, and the need to keep moving as the cold of winter merely gave way to a cold and wet spring, a damp and quite cold summer, and an autumn that could best be described as cold. Finally, on very nearly the first anniversary of the inferno word reached the village that Beaufort Park had acquired a new owner.
Harold Plimpton was the new master. From north, was the rumour, with no word of a wife. Rumours and whispers were all that were known for Mr Plimpton – as polar opposite from the late Mr Thompson as the sea cucumber to the squirrel in the tree – kept himself to himself and tolerated no idle gossip with his neighbours.
“He has six daughters!” remarked Fanny Turtle to Mrs Muffle as they browsed the butchery display. “Six! So few, it breaks my heart. I’ll warrant that Mrs Harold Plimpton died in childbirth. Mark my words!”
“Now Fanny! Conjecture is best left to those with a whole brain and you’ve barely enough to act as a spare should a lowly sea cucumber suffer imminently fatal head trauma. Four hooves please.”
“Ermintrude Muffle! As I live and breathe that is the singular most awful put-down with which you’ve ever put me down! Careful, that hoof has signs of foot and mouth. If your twelve daughters weren’t here to bear witness or wreak revenge upon my person I would box your one remaining ear for such an outrage. Do not pretend you have not given some thought to the mysterious Mr Plimpton for I’ve seen you staring up the road to the house on the hill.”
“It is certainly an episode worthy of some consideration,” replied Mrs Muffle. “But flights of fancy with no evidence to back them up serve no fit purpose. Were a sea cucumber here it would wave away any notion of diverting such time to frivolous thought and instead consider ingratiating itself with the new residents of Beaufort House. And you – who are not yet as advanced as the sea cucumber – would do well to follow its example, young Fanny!”
“Topside of shrew if you please. So, that’s it! I see right through you Ermintrude! You seek to marry off one of your daughters to the most eligible Mr Plimpton. A man who can raise his own daughters single-handed and who has enough money to buy a stately home and two hundred acres of land will be a wonderful son-in-law for a selfish woman like yourself.”
“You are forgetting that we do not know he is eligible Fanny. But there is something in what you say; my daughters would be perfect wives for any man with aspirations. Little Jenny here has a lazy eye but a delightful personality, and her elder sister Mary – who will one day grow to be a most handsome woman if she loses the moustache – has a quick wit which most discerning gentlemen rate higher than child-bearing hips – such as those of Jane’s – in these modern days. Perhaps I will take up your suggestion of accidentally chancing upon Mr Plimpton when he is out hunting – for men such as he must surely take time out to slaughter wildlife for no reason – and expediting an audience with my beautiful girls.”
Mrs Muffle tried on a number of occasions – none of them hunting – to cross the path of Mr Plimpton; in February there was a church sale where the previous year’s stained glass windows were sold to the needy in exchange for their souls, and in April the annual Sea Cucumber Week Of Festivities commenced with many events and games for the whole village to enjoy but of Mr Plimpton or his daughters there was no sign. His staff frequented the village, purchasing foodstuffs and housewares as would any retainers of a large home but none would engage in conversation about the owner of Beaufort House. The enigma grew.
At the end of a summer most cool Mr Dalrymple the village postal clerk, his wife of some years, and their fourteen daughters paid a visit to nearby Whittingdon to check in on the condition of Eliza Thompson who, at last report, had shown no sign of progress but was otherwise comfortable. They were met by the resident doctor at the clinic who informed them that a strange man claiming to be a family friend had discharged the girl into his care. When pressed for a description the doctor confirmed the northerness of the family friend and the low number of daughters in tow but could not recall a name. With this information and their own suspicions the Dalrymple family made a hasty return homewards.
In no time – in no small part because Mr Dalrymple posted a letter to each and every household – the village literally buzzed with the news regarding the Thompson girl.
“Perhaps there is a real family friend we are unaware of who just happens to have only six daughters and we are mistaken with our assumptions that there is any foul deed at hand,” urged Mr Short to nobody in particular.
“Perhaps Mr Plimpton is family,” reasoned the publican at The Three Sea Cucumbers. “A name belies no blood affiliation nor lack thereof, after all.”
“And I say that our own Eliza bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Mrs Plimpton whose death during childbirth haunts the master of Beaufort House so much that he has stolen away her double to be his unconscious wife.” That was Fanny Turtle, naturally, and a brawl soon ensued between her and Mrs Muffle who would hear no evil spoken of her oft-dreamed-of future son-in-law. The fight was most unseemly and muddy and borne on the back of the wildest of fantasy but the notion itself had a way of lodging itself among the most everyday of thoughts of every simple person who heard it. So it was that on the cusp of another cold autumn the villagers as a single entity marched upon Beaufort House, there to resolve as many mysteries as might offer themselves up.
They were met – at last – by Mr Plimpton. His face showed indignation and a little concern under a handsome ginger beard and his stance seethed with strength. Many women were taken short of breath by his eyes which were the colour of topaz and the men noticed mostly that the leather boots he wore were tipped with metal plate and could do great and lasting damage should they ever make brisk contact with any bodily protuberances. The manner in which he held their gaze calmed their group rage. Even Fanny quietened noticeably, though her fractured jaw also contributed somewhat.
“Ooh eck, what be thee lot doin’ ‘ere?” commanded the imposing figure. He was, they all decided privately, most definitely northern.
Mr Willoughby the publican stepped forward, his years of issuing orders to the rowdy and inebriated garnishing him with some level of authority. “Mr Plimpton, sir, we have come in search of news of a dear daughter of the village, Eliza Thompson, whose last whereabouts it has come to be known are most likely to be in your vicinity. We would be grateful if you could confirm the rumours regarding this issue as her condition is of great concern to those of us who hold her deep in our hearts, she being our last tie to the previous, most loved owners of this house.”
“Eliza? The lass from clinic up t’ road? That one? I’m caring for her now. Poor dear was bein’ abused by that there so-called doctor chap, keepin’ ‘er all drugged up for his own wanton acts. Bloody pervert. She’ll be right as rain in a few weeks you’ll see.”
Mrs Muffle shuffled forward thrusting her eldest daughter Charlotte ahead of her. “Oh, Mr Plimpton we are so sorry to have disturbed you. Charlotte here was remarking that you have such a kind soul that you could not possibly be capable of the acts that many of my neighbours seem to consider commonplace for anyone they consider different from themselves. Let me be gracious enough to apologise on everyone’s behalf and invite you to the harvest festival on the Sunday after next. It is sure to be an occasion of high class which someone of your stature will appreciate.”
Mr Plimpton was taken aback by the ferocity of Mrs Muffle’s invitation and more so by the one-armed Charlotte chewing absently at the edge of a sea cucumber sandwich and managed only to stammer “no, no, that’s all fine. I’m not a people person; I’ll just keep meself to meself and you just keep doing whatever it is you lot do.” With that he turned and ran up the pathway to the safety of the brick surrounds of Beaufort House.
“Upon my word!” said Mr Short. “That certainly put us in our place. I do suppose we shall simply have to become used to the idea of living with an unsociable and rude northerner and bury any ridiculous tales that we might dream up before they take control next time.” Many of the crowd looked towards the bruised Fanny with this and nodded their heads. Miss Turtle looked ruefully at the ground, secretly pleased nonetheless that the first meeting between the familes Plimpton and Muffle had been – at best – awkward.
With the passing of several seasons, all of them cold, a great change came over the village and the surrounding areas. The doctor in Whittingdon was murdered in a most disagreeable manner and the village soon lost the services of Mr Dalrymple who was handed down a life sentence. The loss of communication afforded by the post office served to draw everyone into their own shells and the once-lively village wilted. Neither Charlotte nor Jenny nor Mary nor any other daughter of Ermintrude Muffle – who, almost to a girl, took to spinsterhood with great aplomb – took the eye of Mr Plimpton who himself became, if anything, more reclusive than before. Indeed, he only ever took in one visitor and she stayed for a long, long time; Fanny always walked with a slight limp after her altercation with Mrs Muffle but she had a delicate and pleasing face and did not repulse the master of Beaufort House. Besides, she reminded him of his wife who had died while demonstrating how the orientals used to kill themselves with sharpened sea cucumbers when their family honour was blackened.
Eliza Thompson never recovered but she did fall pregnant some two years later and the baby was, of necessity, cut from the dying body in order that it might live. Mr Plimpton was arrested and convicted and shared a cell with Mr Dalrymple briefly before the latter dispatched the former in a similar fashion to that which had befallen a certain Whittingdon-based physician. Fanny was prudent enough to remain in the house and the six – no, seven – daughters of Harold Plimpton regarded her less as a step-mother and more a real mother and a calm joy enveloped each of them and spread into the village. Recovering from the gloom of years past the village eventually bloomed once more and everyone of import regarded the Turtle-Plimptons as among the most hospitable and well-liked of the large families along the Hampshire and Wiltshire border. Until a rumour surfaced that Fanny was leading a lesbian witch coven and they were all burned alive by a furious mob headed by Gabrielle, the daughter of Ermintrude Muffle who hated sewing but really liked fires.