“Well, how did you manage? Did you enjoy your first term at Cambridge?” Penrose Carlton, the Duke of Shawcross, looked so much smaller than he had done when Henry had left for university just weeks before.
“Yes, Grandfather, I enjoyed it very much. I particularly enjoy the sports,” Henry said with a bright smile.
“Well, it is not all enjoyment, you know,” his grandfather said in a gruff tone that Henry had never taken seriously in all the years he had known him. “You are there to learn as well as to play.”
“There is time enough to do both, Grandfather. You need have no worries; I am attending to my studies as I ought to.”
“Yes, I do not doubt that you are.” Finally, the stern, almost angry-looking face broke out into a smile. It always did in the end if Henry waited long enough. “You have always been a clever sort of a boy. But blow me if it does not seem like five minutes ago when your biggest intention in this world was to climb every tree on the Shawcross estate.”
“Well, I think it is fair to say that I accomplished that some years ago.” Henry laughed.
At eighteen years old, Henry was already an accomplished young man. He had been a bright and personable boy, a firm favourite of all the others at Eton, and he had done extraordinarily well.
His mother, of course, had not wanted to see him go when the time came, but Henry had been so excited he could not even pretend to his mother that he did not want to leave Shawcross for a while.
“If you attend to your studies throughout, you will find they set you in good stead, for one day you will be the Duke here, and there is much to do. I have no doubt that you think it runs itself, but the head of an estate must always know what his overseers and managers are doing. A Duke must always know how to run his estate alone if necessary. That is the only way to know it is being run properly. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand, Grandfather.” Henry pulled a comfortable wicker chair up to the side of his grandfather’s bed.
He had always known how to keep the Duke in a good mood, and as a child had truly been able to twist the awkward old man around his little finger.
Henry had only ever known his grandfather to accept him, never having any true experience of what relations once were within that household. He still remembered, of course, that a little over a decade ago he had considered himself to be an orphan. Even though he had never truly believed it, he had accepted it in the way that little children do.
He knew that things had been a little strained in the beginning when they had gone to Shawcross, but with so many trees to climb and such a large estate to explore, Henry had simply shrugged it off and let the adults get on with the business of trying to live alongside one another.
It was some years before he understood quite why he had lived as he had lived as a young boy. Now that he was a man, of course, he understood exactly that he had been born out of wedlock and that his mother’s subterfuge had only existed out of a necessity to keep him safe.
Not once had he blamed her for it, nor his father. He understood that they had been so young, and he even thought he now knew a little of love himself since he had been introduced to a very fine young lady at a bridge afternoon in Cambridge.
And so, he understood that he had been born out of his parents’ love, and only the obstinacy of their fathers had kept them from marrying. He also understood very well that had he been born to any other woman but Catherine Ambrose, he would never have known of his heritage at all. He would have simply been raised in an orphanage and very likely lived out a short life in abject poverty.
All in all, he was very grateful to his parents, his mother most particularly, and he knew the part that his aunt and uncle had played, that pivotal role which had kept him and his mother out of the workhouse when Catherine had been so determined to keep him.
“Have you fallen asleep, Grandfather?” he said quietly and peered at the old man.
“Nearly but not quite, my dear boy,” the Duke said in a voice which Henry was sure was weakening.
He knew that his grandfather had not been in the best of health for some time. But it had come as a surprise to Henry to return home from a few weeks of his first term at university to discover that his grandfather had become bedridden.
“Would you like me to leave you for a while?”
“Perhaps for your own sake, yes.” The Duke opened one rheumy eye and fixed him with it. “But you could do something for me whilst you are back home on shore-leave, as it were.”
“Yes, of course, Grandfather. What is it?” Henry answered with gusto and answered genuinely because he was extraordinarily fond of the old man.
He knew that Penrose Carlton had much to atone for, particularly where Henry’s mother and father were concerned. But as far as Henry was concerned, he had been a very fine grandfather.
He had been interested in Henry’s world and Henry’s silly, childish ideas. He had stood at the bottom of many a tree to ensure Henry’s safety as best he could. All in all, he had simply been a grandfather.
“Perhaps you would come and see me for an hour or two every day. I would like us to have a little time together before you head back to Cambridge. What do you say? Could you stomach it? Could you keep your gruff old grandfather company a little here and there in the next few days?”
“I am sure that I will manage very well, Grandfather,” Henry said and laughed. “I shall just grit my teeth and bear it.”
“That’s my boy,” the Duke said and laughed before closing his eyes again and falling instantly asleep.
“How are you feeling today, Grandfather?” Henry carried a small tea tray into the room. “I am to be your maid today, look, I am brandishing tea.”
“You are not the prettiest maid I have ever seen, Henry, and that is the truth.” The Duke laughed for a moment, stopping only when his laughter turned into a chest racking cough. “And I am feeling a little better, I think.”
“Are you sure, Grandfather? Really, you do not sound better. You sound like an old dray horse pulling a cartload of barrels.” Henry set the tea tray down on the nightstand.
“You never change, Henry, do you?” His grandfather laughed.
“Well, I do not think I have changed much yet, but if I ever needed to, I shall.” Henry pulled the wicker chair closer to his grandfather’s sick bed.
As jovial as Henry was, and as much as he wanted to raise the Duke’s spirits, he could see that his grandfather had deteriorated to some degree overnight.
And the idea that the Duke wanted to see him every day, if only for an hour, gave Henry the dullest feeling deep in the pit of his stomach. He knew without being told that Penrose Carlton had a very good idea that he was not long for this world, and he perhaps had things he wanted to say to Henry.
“That is a very good philosophy, Henry. Mind you remember it when the time comes, for it is very easy to forget. A person can become entrenched in their viewpoint, their way of doing things, and before they know it, they are trampling all over everybody else.”
“Goodness me, you sound as if you speak from experience.” Henry chuckled.
“Of course, I speak from experience, Henry.” The Duke nestled back further still into the huge collection of feather pillows that made his bed seem rather more like a nest. “Many years’ experience, and many, many mistakes. I suppose, in the end, that is what life is. A great long series of mistakes which will only mean anything if they can be rectified.”
“What sort of mistakes, Grandfather?” Henry smiled at him warmly.
“Goodness me, if I were to list my mistakes to you now, it would take so long I think it would be the last thing I ever did.” The Duke laughed again, and for a moment, Henry feared he would be reduced to a coughing fit once more.
However, he merely cleared his throat and took a deep breath, putting himself back to rights again as Henry breathed a sigh of relief.
“Well, tell me whatever you want to tell me; I shall be happy to hear it. In fact, I should be very interested,” Henry went on brightly.
“You know, of course, that relations were not so easy in years gone by between myself and your other grandfather, the grandfather you never met.”
“Oscar Ambrose, yes.” Henry nodded vigorously.
“Well, I suppose I shall never entirely forgive myself the part I played in it all. Not that old Ambrose was any better than I, for he most certainly was not.” He finished the sentence so aggressively that Henry could not help laughing.
“I see you are not entirely rid of your animosity towards the man then, Grandfather?” Henry smiled and, as always, his grandfather was placated.
Henry had a beautiful and ready smile and was extraordinary in that he very rarely took offense over anything. In character, he was very much like his uncle, Charles Topwell, an easygoing man who was never, ever quick to temper.
“Oh dear, you have found me out.” The Duke laughed. “But I was raised to it, you see. My father and Oscar Ambrose’s father were very much enemies before we were even born.”
“So I understand, but why? Why were they such bitter enemies?”
“Ah, a woman.” The Duke chuckled. “But I suppose, in truth, it was pride. The woman, in the end, was very likely secondary to the whole matter.”
“So, they were both after the same lady, were they?” Henry raised his eyebrows in interest. “Tell me, which one of the two men won her?”
“Neither,” the Duke said, and when Henry burst out laughing, he joined in.
Once again, Penrose Carlton suffered the most dreadful fit of coughing. He seemed to hold himself in an embrace, almost as if he was keeping his ribcage together as he coughed and coughed. Henry rose instinctively to his feet and could do no more than hold his grandfather’s wasted shoulders a little steadier and provide him with somebody solid to brace himself against until the awful seizure began to subside.
When it was done, the Duke fell back into his pillows again, breathless and with watering eyes. His face was so red it was almost scarlet, and Henry noticed with a little fear that his grandfather’s lips were a little dark, rather blue, in fact.
Henry knew, of course, that that was not a good sign. Whilst he did not think that his grandfather was about to expire at that moment, he knew that he could not have long left.
Henry loved his grandfather, despite everything he had been told over the years, and could hardly bear the thought of him passing away. But if he had to go, Henry gave a silent prayer that it would be whilst he was still at home and not away at Cambridge. He would like to be able to say goodbye to his grandfather properly, not find out in a letter some days later that he had died.
“Would you like a little water?” Henry said when his grandfather’s breathing seemed to have returned to normal.
“No, no water, my boy. Perhaps just a little rest now.” His eyes were already closing. “Come back in and see me tomorrow.”
With a heavy heart, Henry left the room. Their brief conversation had not lasted anywhere near the hour or more that he had promised to spend with him every day, and he could not help feeling a little guilty about it, even though he was leaving the room at his grandfather’s behest and not his own.
Still, perhaps the Duke would be a little better placed to speak tomorrow.
“Now you do look better than you did yesterday, I must say,” Henry said when he arrived in his grandfather’s room bright and early the following morning. “And the maid said you ate a little more breakfast this morning.”
“I only ate more this morning because it was more palatable than it was yesterday,” the Duke said gruffly.
“Ah, I can see that your mood could be better.” Henry laughed and settled himself down in the wicker chair. “Let us see what we can do about that; what do you say?”
“I daresay between us we might make me a rather more agreeable human being,” the Duke said in a tone that anybody other than Henry might well have thought miserable and somewhat aggressive.
To Henry, it was simply a challenge and not a very great one at that.
“You were going to tell me yesterday about the lady over whom your father and Oscar Ambrose’s father fought.”
“Well, the lady was neither here nor there really, I think. Her name was Ariadne Wallace, and she was the daughter of a minor baron of the county. It is a name that has died out since, and I think she was the Baron’s only offspring.” He waved his hands this way and that as if the fortunes of the Wallace family were neither here nor there. “I never even saw her, but I heard of her when I was a child.”
“Your father spoke of her?”
“Yes, he spoke of her often. He always said how he had been cheated out of her hand in marriage by Edmund Ambrose. Edmund Ambrose was Oscar’s father, you see.”
“Yes, I see,” Henry said and found himself suddenly inordinately interested to hear all the details. “So, do you think your father loved her very much, this Ariadne Wallace?”
“No, although I thought he did at the time. But I rather think that he was simply obsessed by it all. Ariadne Wallace was merely symbolic; she represented a failure of his, and he did not like it.”
“But what about your mother? She cannot have been very pleased to find herself second-place. She must have felt like a runner-up in a horse race.”
“Yes, she must have. But I am bound to say that I did not see it at the time. Even as a grown man, it never occurred to me that I ought to have defended her all those years ago. Even when it was all too late, and my mother had passed, even when I had children of my own, and my own wife had passed, I never thought of my mother and what she must have suffered over it all. And you are right, my father was extraordinarily verbose on the subject, forever claiming that he should have married Ariadne Wallace were it not for Edmund Ambrose. My poor mother must have been sick of hearing it.”
“But you would defend her now if you had the chance, would you not?”
“I most certainly would, Henry. But like so many things I have learned in this life, that was another that I learned too late. In fact,” the Duke began, and his face was an uncharacteristic picture of amusement. “Be a dear boy and ensure that on my headstone it says Here lies Penrose Carlton. He got there in the end, but it was rather too late. I think that would be very fitting.” He laughed, and Henry was pleased to see that he did so cautiously and gently, staving off another fit of coughing.
“I promise, Grandfather. And only you and I will know what it means.” Henry laughed. “But surely the important thing is that you did learn lessons. Surely that is as much as any of us can hope to achieve whilst we are here. Perhaps that is even the whole point of it all.”
“Such wisdom at but eighteen years, Henry. I would give my right arm to go back again and live my life with your kind heart and your fulsome knowledge. And I am bound to admit that you are certainly a product of your mother’s influence. If only I had realized years before what a fine young lady she truly is.”
“But again, Grandfather, you realize it now. And you have realized it for some time, for I know that the two of you are friends, whatever either one of you might say. That is the important thing, is it not?”
“You are too quick to let me off the thing, Henry. You are a very forgiving young man.”
“But is that not the very thing you are keen to impress upon me? The importance of forgiveness? Or have I mistaken the purpose of our brief conversations these last days?”
“You have mistaken nothing, Henry. You never do.” The Duke reached out a gnarly old hand and laid it on his grandson’s knee for a moment. “I am not sure that there is anything I can teach you at this late stage. You seem to know by instinct the things it took me a lifetime to learn, and I am really very proud of you, my boy.”
“You flatter me greatly, Grandfather. But you know me; I shall accept any praise that comes my way.” Henry smiled warmly and patted his grandfather’s hand. “And I know if you could go back, you would have defended your mother. I am sure that you only did not because you wanted to please your father, or at least not upset him at any rate.”
“Yes, you are quite right. My father was a very difficult man, and I would have done anything to secure his approval.” As he spoke the words, Penrose Colton looked suddenly so very sad that Henry feared he might cry.
“Grandfather? Are you alright?”
“I think I am a little tired again, my boy. Perhaps you would leave me for a while so that I might sleep.”
When Henry entered his grandfather’s room the following day, he immediately realized that it was very likely going to be for the last time. If it was possible, Penrose Carlton looked even smaller, no longer the great bear of a man with a tremendously well-fed stomach. No longer did he have broad shoulders and a round face.
It was the first time that Henry had ever thought of him as old, and he looked every bit of it. Feeling his heart aching, Henry paused in the doorway for a moment and blinked hard at his tears. He wanted for all the world to sob like a child at what he knew was his impending loss, and yet he knew he could not. His grandfather deserved his full attention and his strength, not his need and sadness.
“So, you have come back to hear a little more, have you?” the Duke said in a voice that had greatly weakened in the few hours since Henry had last spoken to him.
“I am desperate to hear the details, Grandfather. And I must have them, do you hear?” Henry forced himself to smile brightly and chuckled deeply as he pulled the wicker chair back over to his grandfather’s bedside.
“Well, I can hardly think where I got to.”
“Ariadne Wallace and her devastating effect on two households,” Henry said with a chirpy succinctness he knew his grandfather would appreciate.
“Initially, she merely had a devastating effect on two young men. They had been the best of friends, you know, my father and Edmund Ambrose. They had been to Eton together and then both of them to Oxford. They had been the firmest of friends until they had come to fall out over the attention of Ariadne Wallace.”
“But which of them did she prefer?”
“I honestly do not imagine that she wanted either one of them. My father never said that she had an inclination for him, but he did not say that she had an inclination for Edmund Ambrose either. I think that she was simply a catalyst for a dreadful break in their relationship. It was not so much about her, but more about which one of them would give in first. In the end, I wonder if they even remembered what she looked like. Their intention was more on their offended pride than anything else.”
“It seems an awfully silly beginning to a feud which lasted so long,” Henry said, not wanting to upset his grandfather, but not wanting to patronize him either.
He knew that his grandfather wanted to talk about it, and for him to say nothing and brush over it, almost deny the futility of it all, would have been pointless. Henry would not do that to his grandfather, no matter what.
“It was, Henry. And the fact that I could not see it, and neither could Oscar Ambrose, was worse still. At any given moment, we should have been able to look at what we were doing and see it for what it was. We were no better than our fathers and, in a lot of respects, we were worse, for we were continuing an argument that was not even ours to continue. I cannot speak for Oscar Ambrose, but I know that I was most determined to gain my father’s approval.”
“As so many young men are, Grandfather.”
“But I despised it, you see. Try as I might, I could never quite measure up to what he expected of me. I truly believe that I never did gain his approval, however hard I sought it.”
“That must have been very painful.”
“It was extraordinarily painful. Painful enough that I should have seen that I did the very same thing to my own sons.”
“You did?” Henry felt truly awkward.
He knew that his grandfather needed to say all, have it all off his chest before he departed this world once and for all, but he was not so sure that he wanted to bear witness. This was about to be a confession, and Henry knew it. He only hoped that he was man enough to see it through for his grandfather’s sake.
“My eldest son, you never knew him, was called Pierce.”
“Yes, my father talks of him often.”
“And the biggest regret in my life is that he will never know how dear he was to me. Even though I bullied and cajoled him for so many years, I still loved him. Of course, I never told him that; what father does?” He laughed briefly and gruffly. “But I could have at least openly approved of him now and again. If I had, he might still be alive.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“His desperate search for approval from me led Pierce to betray his brother and your mother. And it set in motion a chain of events which affected you all. But even then, I did not give Pierce the acknowledgement he needed. When he realized that he would likely never get it, he felt terrible about what he had done. The guilt hit him very hard, and he had chased after your father one day, determined to have his forgiveness, which was when he had the accident that killed him.”
“But surely that is just a terrible accident, Grandfather. How on earth could you have foreseen it?”
“You are very kind, my dear boy, but I must own up to it all sooner or later. And I do not think I have much later left, so it will have to be sooner.” He tried to laugh, but it was clear that he was getting very weak.
“Of course, you may say whatever you wish to say to me,” Henry said, and he felt his throat tightening with emotion.
“Every action has a consequence, Henry. Sometimes they are consequences that you could not possibly foresee or even imagine, but they are there, nonetheless. Had I been a better father, Pierce would never have felt the need to betray his brother in order to get from me what he needed. And if I had been a better man, I would never have continued the feud between the Carltons and the Ambroses, and your mother and father would never have been parted for so many years. And you, young man, would not have spent the first seven years of your life believing yourself to be an orphan.” The Duke took a long, slow breath. “And for that, Henry, I am truly sorry. I apologize to you unreservedly for the pain that I caused you in your early life, and I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive you for, Grandfather. My early years might have been a little out of the common way, but they were extraordinarily good fun. I had willing parents all over the place, and I still do. I have everything in the world that I need, and I always have. And the fact that I live here, one day to be the heir to the Duchy, is something that I have to thank you for. You see, in the end, you let go, Grandfather. In a pivotal moment in your life, you let go of your resentment, and it changed everything. Not only for me but for my mother and father also. As much as you seem determined to berate yourself in these last days, I think you forget that you have much to be proud of. You made changes where you needed to and when you needed to, and you did it well. You did it with grace, and you opened your heart, and that is as much as any man can do in this world.”
“What a fine boy you are,” the Duke said weakly as tears began to roll down his face. “Just tell me that you will give me a thought once in a great while as you make your way through this life.”
“I shall think of you every day.”
“And now I think it is time for you to run downstairs and fetch your mother and father for me. I have a few things I would like to say to them, apologies I would like to make, and I think I do not have very long.”
“Do not say that,” Henry said, and despite his determination to be incredibly manly about the whole thing, his tears welled and finally spilled over.
“You cannot keep me here forever, my dear boy. My time has come, and the best that you can do for me now is to bring Thomas and Catherine to me. Will you do it?”
“Of course,” Henry said and quickly rose and kissed his grandfather on the forehead in case he suddenly passed before he could return.
Henry raced down the stairs calling for his father as he went. In no time at all, he had managed to shepherd his mother and father upstairs and into his grandfather’s room. With a heavy heart, he had made it clear beforehand that they did not have very long with him.
Henry hovered just outside the door, peering in as his father took the wicker chair and reached out to hold the Duke’s hand. His mother was silently weeping as she sat down on the edge of the old man’s bed.
As Henry heard his grandfather relating much of what he had told him earlier to his mother and father, he realized that they had both already forgiven him a very long time ago. If they had not forgiven him, they would not both be weeping now, holding his hands and gently bearing witness to his departure from this life.
As soon as the Duke had made his peace with his son and daughter-in-law, Henry could see that he was quickly fading.
He made his way back into the room and perched on the bed next to his mother, laying a protective arm around her shoulder as he reached to place a hand on his grandfather’s chest.
He wanted his grandfather to know that he was surrounded by people who loved him. He wanted him to know that his life had been worth something and all the mistakes he had made and the lessons he had learned were just part and parcel of it all.
In the end, despite a lifetime of mistakes, the old Duke of Shawcross had done the right thing. He had looked upon a little boy and recognized him as his grandson. And at that moment, he had opened his heart to an entire family.
He had surmounted what had previously been insurmountable; he had relinquished his own resentment and his pride and chosen to live a better life.
Henry knew in his heart that it took a very fine man to do such a thing, and as much as his grandfather had praised him for his wisdom, Henry was very aware of the fact that he himself had been brought up with love and kindness, never once had he had to scrabble around for his father’s approval. His father, Thomas Carlton, had always made him feel that he had true worth in the world, just by dint of the fact that he was there. Henry would never have to do anything to please his father; his father was simply pleased to have him. What on earth must it have felt like to be Penrose Carlton? A young man who did not enjoy such comfort.
And yes, despite it all, the old Duke of Shawcross had finally made it. He had achieved what must have seemed like the unachievable.
It mattered not that it had come so very late, what mattered more than anything was that it had come in the end. As Penrose Carlton took his last breath, his grandson Henry thought of the humorous epitaph he had wanted engraved on his headstone. But he thought that it would be more fitting to say Here lies Penrose Carlton, he got there in the end, and it was not too late; it is never too late.