Chapter Twenty-One (completed)
Rowena’s concerns about the tenants and farmers were similar to those Alex had tried tackling that same morning, only she had to first and foremost deal with the women’s problems. Many women had been virtually widowed due to their husbands leaving for the large industrials cities in the hope of gaining more money to support their families. As a result, these women were left to fend for themselves on the farms deserted by their husbands, which was extremely difficult when one had to deal with the additional strain of raising a family consisting of small children. In short, these women were not coping at all.
Rents had not been paid for several years but this was something Alex was prepared to overlook provided the farms were tended appropriately and harvests brought in sizeable yields. And herein lay the rub; everything had been slowing down over the past years and so much so that practically every farm on the estate was in arrays. However, where Alex only saw the enormity of the problem with no clue as to solve it, Rowena had concocted a workable plan, which she meant to submit to her husband, once he saw with his own eyes in what quagmire the women were.
As they were cantering leisurely through the fields on their way to the Home Farm, Rowena attempted her first tackle.
“Alex, have you considered some form of cooperation between the farmers to overcome the lack of workers? I read about it in a book about French winemakers. They cannot afford the machinery, such as presses and bottling devices, each on their own estate, so they unite themselves to form a cooperation. That way they have sufficient funds to hire the necessary machinery and use it each of them in turn. I figured we could work out something similarly here. What is your opinion about this?”
When she saw the stony expression he had worn since he had decreed he would accompany her deepen, Rowena inwardly sighed. He did not approve and would veto her, she was sure. Then she watched his brows rise in astonishment.
“I never knew we had that kind of books in our library, so I will be sure to read that one in particular. I was not at home that much, you see. After I graduated from Cambridge, I immediately asked my father to buy me a commission. I have been in the army for the last ten years and did not sell up until July last year. I was incapacitated for months, and being almost blind, I was unable to read.”
“Alex, Alex, you do not need to justify yourself to me! I know about your predicament and I admire the way you tackled the estate’s difficulties with such great skill and dedication. You had enough on your plate as it was and no need to take in a fallen woman, let alone marry her, to add to your problems, but you did, for which I am infinitely grateful. So just tell me what you think of my proposition.”
He waited a bit before answering in a slightly regretful manner. “I am unsure if the workers – the males especially – would welcome such an action. They would see it as an insult to their pride as farmers.”
Rowena jumped into the breech his words had conjured. “This is exactly why I want to address the women, Alex. Women also have their pride, make no mistake, but they are prepared to set it aside for their families’ sake, if necessary. I am fairly certain I can make them see the benefits of working together for the good of the community as well as of their families. However, …”
She halted, making him draw rein as well beside her. “However, I will need your help. Your support in backing me up as lord of the manor will give me the authority I need to accomplish this. So, if you are in doubt about this, tell me now, because we have arrived at the Home Farm. Mrs Walton is the one who I have chosen to organize this. If you will not give me your benediction, I want to know it now.”
The very next day, Rowena’s plan was set into motion, after Alex gave his unconditional support.
A women’s meeting was organized at the assembly rooms in Ketteridge village after Mrs Walton spread the word. Bar the very old, every woman mastering a household and sometimes even a farm was present. Rowena explained her reasoning and asked for the assembly’s support in organizing the procedures.
Alongside Rowena and Mrs Amy Walton, wife to the tenant of the Home Farm, and consequently the one with the highest authority among the farmers’ wives, there were three other very important pillars of the community. Two of them were left to manage their farm on their own, their husbands and older sons having departed for Manchester and the cotton factories. Mrs Gladys Peters and Mrs Anna Claythorne were struggling to cope with the help of their younger sons, lads of barely ten years old. Just like the majority of the women present they were not managing at all. Mrs Peters was in charge of a large farm on the north of the estate, dealing mostly with corn crops, where Mrs Claythorne had to see to a farm with a large sheep herd. The other women present had similar farms but smaller in size, so the previous two were acting as spoke-persons for their fellow sisters.
Alex sat watching the whole at the rear of the hall, marvelling in his wife’s capacity as a moderator and organizer. Never had he suspected her strength and intelligence in a matter such as this and he felt ashamed that he had never even tried to look closer at Rowena. She was a beautiful young woman, and a graceful one, and for a long time, that had been all he had been interested in. Now, however, he was realizing that she was also a driving force that could help him restore his estate, and that was a complete surprise to him.
The way he had always regarded women – to his utter shame, as it turned out – had been only as a means to satisfy his baser physical needs. All through his army career, he had never seen the slightest point in earnestly tying himself to any woman other than to bed her, enjoy and then dump her. In all his thirty-one years, he had never thought it necessary to settle into a steady, domesticated life, because he had thought his older brother Reggie would take care of the estate’s needs in that regard. He – Alex – had always considered himself free of the estate. He could happily go on soldiering through Europe, with the underlying thought of being killed someday, and therefore been entitled to amuse himself thoroughly and meaninglessly between battles. Waterloo had definitely put a stop to that.
“A penny for your thoughts, Alex.” Richard Orme’s quiet, slightly mocking voice tore him back to the present.
Alex scoffed. “I am not sure my thoughts are worth that much, Rich.”
“You looked dazed, as if you could scarcely believe your eyes. Surely by now, you are used to the riveting sight of your countess in full organizing mode? By the way, what exactly is she organizing?”
A sigh from deep within racking him, Alex explained, which drew a whistle from Richard.
“Well, well, I never knew she had it in her, my friend. I always saw her as the mousy, quiet type, undergoing more than undertaking, if you get my meaning.”
Alex bristled. “She is definitely not mousy, Rich. Use your eyes, for heaven’s sake. Even when I was virtually blind, I knew she was beautiful, and that was from the first second I met her.”
His friend burst into a loud laugh which made everyone in the room turn to them. Richard waved a hand in apology to Rowena and the room’s attention went back to her.
“What, by Jove, is there to laugh about, Rich?” Alex asked from between clenched teeth.
“Sorry, old boy, merely expressing my joy at finally seeing you arrived where you belong. You have a beautiful, intelligent and caring wife, Alex, and you deserved it after your many ordeals. Praise yourself extremely fortunate, my friend. I envy you.”
And with that, Richard Orme turned and left the room, thereby leaving Alex to frown in utter confusion and concern.