Read A Winter's Child Online

Authors: Brenda Jagger

A Winter's Child

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Contents
Brenda Jagger
A Winter's Child
Brenda Jagger

Brenda Jagger was writer of historical fiction, best known for her three-part ‘Barforth'family saga.

Jagger was born in Yorkshire, which was the setting for many of her books including
Barforth
. The recurring central themes of her work are marriage, womanhood, class, identity, and money in the Victorian Era.

Her work has been praised for its compelling plots and moving storylines as well as its exacting emotional descriptions. Her later novel
A Song Twice Over
won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award in 1986.

Chapter One

Miriam Swanfield, believing herself to be lovable, had always felt entitled to the affection of others. Nor, believing herself to be generous had she ever felt the least hesitation in claiming her share of every good thing the world seemed perfectly pleased to offer.

She had been a pretty, pink and white girl with fluttering eyelids and a will of iron. As a pretty, pouting tea rose of a woman, she had made herself invincible. She had taken care, all her life, to appear guileless, helpless, terribly endearing and with these weapons had carved out a position which she did not intend –
ever
– to relinquish.

She had been born a Miss Miriam Harper, daughter of an undistinguished draper in a small industrial West Yorkshire town; and thoroughly disliking the drudgery of her father's shop counter she had taken, at eighteen, the traditional escape of marriage, not to a clerk or another small shopkeeper as might have been expected – thus exchanging drudgery for drudgery – but to a man of property. And while congratulations had been forthcoming in plenty, certain and very definite warnings had accompanied them, the gentleman in question, although indeed the master of a sizable fortune acquired in the textile trade, being also in possession of an arrogant disposition, a hasty temper and – himself approaching fifty – a five-year-old son.

A hard man, Aaron Swanfield, an ungenerous man, a lecherous man, a combination which had brought little joy to his first, late but evidently not-much-lamented lady. Poor Miriam. He had wedded her, the town of Faxby hinted darkly, because there had been no other way to get her, the price of a respectable girl, as everyone knew, being a wedding ring. And once the price had been paid, the pleasure taken, she would be relegated to the scullery and laundry of her husband's affections, left alone night after night at his great, cheerless house at High Meadows, keeping her domestic account books in order, if she could, and bringing up the truculent, difficult child whose conception, after twenty sterile years, had greatly inconvenienced his father and proved fatal to his mother.

Faxby had seen it all happen before. A young girl in full bloom, an elderly, self-indulgent man desiring a change from the dubious enjoyments to be had, furtively but not cheaply, at Faxby's Crown Hotel. A month or two of passion, after which Faxby knew full well that the novelty, if not the bloom itself, would have faded sufficiently for the bridegroom to wonder if he would not have done better to take a woman in capable, grateful middle-age to keep his house and discipline his son. And for the bride to understand that money – since her husband would be unlikely to let her lay hands on very much of it – could never be quite enough.

Poor Miriam.

Yet, undaunted, she had tripped happily to church on her wedding morning, a vision of white lace and white roses and flushed, ready-to-be rumpled virginity, and had managed so strangely but surely to touch her husband's heart that for thirty years thereafter she had remained his spoiled darling, his ‘pretty Mimi'. And now, seven years after his death, although her porcelain daintiness had puffed out to the stately, full-bosomed proportions of a dowager queen, she was, in spirit, his ‘pretty Mimi'still.

He had been a man dedicated to the making of money. With ‘Mimi's'guidance he had discovered how to spend it. He had been unsociable, treating his neighbours with contempt or, at best, ignoring them. But Miriam, who loved not only to sing and dance but to be heard and seen, had quickly converted High Meadows, the cold empty mansion bought as an investment with his first wife's dowry, into her own very warm and very personal stage. He had been a cynical, solitary man, expecting nothing from any woman beyond the satisfaction of his lusty appetites. But Miriam, with her chattering delight in flowers and parties and new silk dresses, her pretty little greeds for tinsel-wrapped Christmas parcels and chocolates in gold paper, her absolute determination to enjoy her life to the full, had charmed him and tamed him and made him quite foolishly content.

Dear Aaron. She well remembered how anxious he had been – so touching and quite unnecessary – when she had given birth, placidly, easily, to their first child a bare nine months after her wedding, a circumstance which had caused not a few of her dear friends and neighbours to do their sums. And then, some seven years later and again seven years after that, two more golden little darlings, her only son Jeremy and a second daughter, every bit as pretty, had declared Aaron – elderly by then of course and growing sentimental – as ‘Mimi'herself. Not quite, perhaps. But certainly with her three little angels clustered around her, all of them sheltered so firmly and so very luxuriously beneath Aaron Swanfield's wing, Miriam had been, for a while, hard-pressed to think of anything more to wish for.

She was fond of her daughters and adored her son. And there was Benedict, of course, her husband's son by his first marriage who, while he could not be said to adore anyone, was so very clever at taking care of things at the Mill, thus leaving his father free to take care of Miriam. She was the mistress of the finest house for many miles around, with a husband who worshipped her and had never once, in all their years together, questioned the size of her bills. In the small tidal waters of Faxby's not particularly high but fiercely competitive society, no one swam more successfully or more gracefully than Miriam, her vibrant tropical colours making common haddock and herring of all the rest. She had everything she wanted. She did not expect either to lose it or to see it change.

‘I believe I am getting old,' Aaron said.

‘Nonsense, dear.' He had always seemed old to her. What he meant was that he might one day – well – pass on, she supposed. She decided not, for the moment, to believe it.

‘Not yet, Aaron dear. I need you. Jeremy is only eighteen and Polly still quite a baby. How could I possibly manage them without you?'

‘I'll see to it,' he said.

‘Of course, dear.'

She had never doubted it.

And when, one shocking morning, barely three months later he had collapsed across the breakfast table with a dreadful over-setting of toast racks and marmalade pots and the silver coffee service, she had been heartbroken, of course, but – in everything concerning her own future – unafraid.

‘Fetch Benedict,' he'd gasped. And when this difficult, far-from-favourite eldest son of his had come up from the mill – his first wife's dark-eyed, dark-complexioned child with nothing of pink and white ‘Mimi'in him – he'd reached out a gnarled, already shaking hand, not in affection but the better to deliver a last command.

‘Look after my wife,' he'd growled, his fingers biting hard into Benedict Swanfield's perfectly steady arm. ‘I'm paying you well enough to do it. You've got control.'

‘Yes, father.' Benedict was a competent, cool-eyed man, bred deliberately to shrewdness and sharpness by Aaron who, with so much softness and prettiness around him, had needed somebody with a hard head on his shoulders. And there had never been much affection between them.

‘So look after my wife and your brother and sisters. And make sure my “Mimi” has everything she wants.'

‘I want nothing,' murmured a sad, deeply veiled Miriam after the funeral. ‘Absolutely nothing. Except, of course, that everything should go on here at High Meadows just as it always has. We both know, Benedict dear, how much your father would have wanted that.'

She had smiled up at him, candidly, confidingly, very much as she had smiled at his father on her wedding day, being in no doubt at all that the terms of her husband's will, which had amused Faxby and had been declared iniquitous by her eldest daughter, who was always in need of ready money, had been designed exclusively for her benefit.

Aaron had promised to take care of her and by bequeathing to Benedict his position as Chairman of Swanfield Mills he had simply wished to make certain that the Mills, under Benedict's efficient management, would continue to prosper and, therefore, to pay out the dividends upon which all Miriam's little luxuries depended. By giving Benedict control of all family finances and trusts, what had her husband done, in fact, but spare her a great deal of trouble since it would now be to Benedict, not to Miriam, that her own much-loved but rather expensive brood would be forced to apply for increased allowances, release of capital, new cars, new houses, seats on the Swanfield Board; practical matters which Miriam had never cared to understand. Let Benedict deal with them. Let
him
endure all the haggling and bickering which would certainly arise when it became clear to her younger son and daughter, as it had been immediately clear to their elder sister, that although they had inherited substantial sums of money they could not spend it, apart from fixed monthly allowances, without the permission of their never particularly approachable half-brother, Benedict.

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