For Kate O’Connor, desperate to escape her tragic past in England, the opportunity to immigrate to New Zealand with Sir John Devenish and his wife and daughter is a chance to start over.
Exhilarated by this wild, primitive place on the other side of the world, Kate’s happiness is marred by a love she knows is taboo. When a sudden and suspicious death throws her life into turmoil, she begins to uncover the real reason the Devenish family left England.
From a grand townhouse in London to a sheep farm in New Zealand, An Important Family, which was hailed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as “a compulsive page turner,” is the story of a country in the midst of colonization—a transformation that parallels Kate O’Connor’s own rite of passage into womanhood as she finds her future in a magnificent new land.
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An Important Family
By Dorothy Eden
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Dorothy Eden
All rights reserved.
When she arrived on the doorstep, Kate couldn't bring herself to ring the doorbell. The house was too grand and she was uncertain as to whether she should have gone to the servants' entrance. But the advertisement had said "to live as family." Families used the front door. Would there be a servants' entrance in a colonial house? She doubted it. Therefore, to live as family meant little since there could scarcely be an alternative.
"And is it cannibal country you're planning to go to?" Cousin Mabel had asked in great alarm.
"A bonny tender young thing like Kate," her husband, Cousin Giles, hidden behind The Times newspaper, had murmured. "She'll be served as the plat du jour at the Big Chief's table."
Cousin Mabel was English and didn't appreciate Irish humour. Kate didn't always appreciate it herself, and particularly not today when she had such an ordeal ahead of her.
But it wasn't cannibalism she was afraid of, it was what the advertisement had candidly stated about isolation and loneliness. Was she strong enough to face those things?
Of course she was. They couldn't be worse than the loneliness and grief she had suffered for the last two years, the hatred of Ireland and the longing, since Dermot's death at the hands of an ill-tempered British sergeant, to get away from that sad, weeping country for ever.
The familiar wrench of pain and anger stiffened her resolve. Kate set her finger on the doorbell and waited in the grey spacious London square, austere and orderly and exuding wealth and power. A thought puzzled her. Why did the people who lived in this grand house, apparently lacking nothing, want to travel so far away? Were they also escaping from grief?
The door opened. A majestic butler appeared. His lofty gaze took in Kate's modest appearance. His expression said that she should have gone to the servants' entrance.
"Yes, miss. What do you want?"
The newspaper containing the advertisement, which she had outlined in black ink, trembled in Kate's hand.
Wanted—for titled family emigrating to the colony of New Zealand, young woman of pleasant disposition and resourcefulness. To be companion to two ladies and to live as family. A knowledge of music, art and literature an advantage, also needlework and care of the ladies' wardrobes. The post will inevitably represent some isolation from society, so nobody who has not the strength to contemplate partings from family and friends should consider it. Apply with references to 3 Belgrave Square, London.
Kate indicated the column to the butler. She spoke with as much confidence as she could manage.
"I have come to see somebody about this. I'm afraid I don't know your employers' names."
"Sir John and Lady Devenish, miss. I'll see if his lordship is available. Will you step inside?"
A black-and-white tiled hall, good furniture, mirrors, the curve of a well-polished staircase. Why should Lord and Lady Devenish be travelling into the unknown? Why did they need to seek a new life? Intrigued, Kate forgot her nervousness. She must have caught the scent of adventure for suddenly she knew that she terribly wanted to accompany them, no matter what kind of people they were.
"Will you come this way, miss?" The butler had returned and was indicating that Kate should follow him down the hall into a darkish book-lined room.
"The young lady, my lord."
"Ah, yes, Parker. Has she told you her name? Never mind, you may leave us. Come and introduce yourself, madam."
"I'm Miss O'Connor. Kate O'Connor, sir."
"Irish," he said at once.
It was impossible to tell from his voice whether he was prejudiced or not. So many English people, especially since the Great Hunger, seemed to hate and despise the Irish. Their own consciences were guilty, that was the trouble.
But this man, strong-looking and youngish, surely not more than forty, seemed impartial, almost a little absent in his manner, as if the irritating Irish were minuscule compared with his own private concerns.
He was well groomed, from his glossy waving brown hair, to his sparkling white shirt-cuffs, his polished fingernails, the heavy, gold watch chain across his stomach. When Kate dared to raise her eyes and look into his face, she saw that he was looking at her with deep-set observant eyes. He was not perfectly handsome because his high-bridged nose was very slightly crooked as if it had once been broken. A fall in the hunting field, perhaps. This slight fault, to Kate's mind, was attractive. His colour had a healthy ruddiness, as if from an outdoor life, he was clean shaven, his mouth was unsmiling and had a look of intolerance, his jaw strong.
A formidable figure, Kate decided. But who would want a meek and polite gentleman to be in charge of three ladies sailing into an unknown world?
Kate's heart was beating hard. "Anglo-Irish, sir," she said in her soft voice. "I was brought up in Mallow by two aunts. My father was thrown from a horse and killed when I was a child. He was Irish and reckless. My mother was English." She saw him watching her. "She grieved too much, and soon followed him."
"And now you want to leave your aunts and your country? Why? Are you penniless? In trouble? Are you running away from something?"
I don't think I care for that inflexible mouth, Kate was thinking. If I could see him smile
"Does one have to be running away from something, sir?"
"I should explain that I'm a great admirer of the writings of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the coloniser. Have you heard of him? He has a dream about the ideal colony. A Utopia, in fact. He says that emigrants to empty lands should not be in flight from disgrace or crime or starvation or other desperate ills. He was referring to the unfortunate convict settlements in Australia, of course."
Kate was interested and forgot her nervousness.
"And so the emigrants should all be respectable people with no blemish on their characters?"
"In Wakefield's Canterbury settlement in New Zealand, this is his intention. He wants large numbers of families of both the gentry and the working classes to settle there. There must also be members of the professions such as law and medicine. A bishop would be an excellent idea."
There was the shadow of a smile on that serious mouth.
"And of course a fair measure of craftsmen such as carpenters, bricklayers, shopkeepers, shepherds and ploughmen. A perfectly constructed and balanced society, in other words. It's a concept that I find tremendously exciting. Surely a promising new country like New Zealand gives enterprising people the opportunity to create it."
"And everyone is to be perfectly happy?" Kate heard herself saying. "But what about human nature?"
"I mean the usual components of love and hate, greed, envy, bad tempers, craftiness, guile. Even stupidity. Your perfect colony can't banish the things that we all carry on our backs."
Sir John Devenish was looking at her with some impatience. Had he expected nothing but romantic idealism from a woman? How could he, an intelligent and thinking man, be so gullible himself? Yet the concept was exciting, and how could such a society become a fact if people didn't believe in it?
"I apologise, sir—"
"What are you apologising about?"
"I think I was impertinent."
"To express your opinion? No, I welcome an intelligent opinion. Although I had hardly expected such a quickly formed one." His eyes remained hard and unfriendly. He didn't like his dream being pricked even in the smallest way. It obviously meant a very great deal to him.
"At least I don't need to enquire about your education, Miss O'Connor," he commented. "That's apparent. Although you have a woman's way of looking at things. Perhaps you should answer the question that led up to this."
"Am I running away? From Ireland, certainly. My fiancé was killed there." Kate bit her lip, and tried to keep her voice calm. "He wasn't an important person, just a schoolmaster, who was too compassionate. He tried to stop the military from evicting a family from their cottage. There was a young mother and two small children. He acted impulsively, I know, and he would never have succeeded, even if he had been given a chance. But the sergeant, a big brutal fellow, struck him down. Killed him, sir. Although unintentionally," she added fairly.
"That's terrible," Sir John Devenish said with sincerity. "It's understandable you should want to leave that unhappy country. Have you overcome your grief?"
"I will not be a weeping female, sir."
Sir John's mouth gave a twitch. Almost, he had been about to smile.
"I have only two aunts in Mallow and a cousin in London. They agree with my aspirations."
They didn't. At least Aunt Dolly, the younger of the two elderly sisters in Mallow may secretly have done so. She still had the light of the dreamer in her soft blue eyes. But she was accustomed to letting her sister, Esmeralda, be the spokesman, so it was officially known in Mallow that the Misses O'Connor were puzzled and grieved by their niece's extraordinary decision. They should not have been. Their troubled country had seen many departures from its shores, and the letters and the small packages of gold had come trickling back. Even Aunt Esmeralda and Aunt Dolly would not scorn the gold, if Kate could send it. Their rambling old house was shabby and their tangled demesne had shrunk from ten acres to two since Paddy Dowell had taken the other eight to graze his cows. The money had been most useful while it lasted. But it had quickly gone, and the house was again falling into disrepair. What future did it have for Kate? Even Cousin Mabel in London had been unable to make any suggestions save that Kate, so clever in her brain, should open a small private school for girls—without apparently money or pupils!
"And the other requirements in the advertisement?" Sir John was saying.
Kate was on firmer ground now. "Oh, they'll be no bother to me. I can do them all, and other things, too."
"What other things?"
"Speaking French. Riding."
"French won't be necessary in New Zealand, I fancy. Maori, more likely. I hear it is a musical language. Riding will indeed be useful as it is the only way to get about, except for bullock waggons. And coaches on the roads, but there are few roads."
"Does Lady Devenish ride, sir?"
"Not much. My daughter does, but doesn't care for it. They're what I call drawing-room women."
He spoke with a certain pride, as if this was the kind of woman he admired. But in a new settlement? As pioneers? One supposed the ornamental would be necessary, as well as the practical, if they were to have a balanced society.
Kate found she had been enjoying their conversation. It had been much more an exchange of ideas than an interrogation of herself. It was possible that there would be more discussions of this kind, on the long tedious voyage, when good conversationalists would probably be scarce. A stirring of excitement made her eyes brighten. She watched Sir John pull the bell rope, and nodded when he said that he thought it time for her to make the acquaintance of his wife.
"Since she must make the ultimate decision. You will be constantly in her company. And my daughter's, of course. Parker"—the butler had appeared—"ask Lady Devenish if she is able to come down. You understand," he went on to Kate, "that no decision can be made today. You are the first applicant and I daresay there will be others."
"I understand, sir." For all her confused feelings the excitement stirring in her told Kate that she very much wanted this position, and infinitely more now than when she had been standing nervously on the doorstep. She guessed that Sir John Devenish would be a forthright man, perhaps an intolerant one, and not easily knowable. If he deferred to his wife so meticulously, what could she be like?
Don't let her spoil my hopes, Kate prayed silently. If she is a dragon, can I live for three months in the confined space of a ship with her, and then in the isolation of a lonely house? And with the daughter, too, who may be just as domineering as her parents
Her tumbled thoughts scattered as the door opened and a small fragile woman, like a moth, or a white mouse, came in.
"You wanted me, John? Oh, you have an applicant." There was surprise and apprehension in Lady Devenish's sigh. "So soon."
"It can't be too soon, my dear. This is Miss Kate O'Connor who seems eager to join us in our new life. I know you will have a long list of matters to discuss with her, so I'll leave you."
Lady Devenish made a groping movement towards her husband. She was dressed in pale grey and her face had almost the same sad colour. Her eyes were downcast as if she were too diffident or too nervous to look at Kate. Or was it her alarming future which she was refusing to face? Kate was amused at her own apprehension. Was this the woman who was going to dominate the ship's poky cabin? Poor thing, what she needed was a mouse-hole.
How could someone so urbane and confident as Sir John Devenish have married a timid woman like this? Or had marriage to him developed the timidity? Once Lady Devenish must have been delicately pretty, like a harebell. If one liked the frail short-lived flowers.
The door closed. The two women were alone and unexpectedly Lady Devenish raised her eyes and gave Kate a surprisingly sharp scrutiny. She was not entirely colourless, after all.
"How old are you, Miss O'Connor?"
"And are you good with young girls, Miss O'Connor? Have you a kind and sympathetic manner?"
"I haven't had much experience, Lady Devenish. But I would be kind, of course."
"Celina has an extremely nervous disposition. She inherits it from me. Her father, I am afraid, doesn't always understand a young girl's vapours."
"May I ask how old your daughter is, Lady Devenish?"
"How old? Were you not told? She is eighteen."
"Oh! I had imagined—"
"What?" The sharpness was in Lady Devenish's voice now. Brittle, Like glass breaking.
"I don't know why I imagined that she wasn't out of the schoolroom."
"That's because her father babies her. We both do, I'm afraid. She has always been so sensitive, so easily upset. She lives on her nerves. Oh, Miss O'Connor—"
"Do you believe that the natives of New Zealand are cannibals?"
One could not lie. Kate had heard the same stories herself.
"I believe some of the tribes did practise cannibalism. But not since the coming of the white man, and the missionaries. There is a Bishop Selwyn who has made himself famous for teaching the savages Christian ways."
"I am relieved to hear it." Lady Devenish had brightened a little. "Of course, with decent British rule, those horrible practices must disappear. Anyway, Sir John says that our property is not in a native area. It is too far from the sea. The natives live on fish a great deal. Avalon is quite a fine place, Miss O'Connor. We are not going to live in mud huts. Sir John bought the property from a settler who is returning to England. He has seen sketches of the house and outbuildings. It has verandas and gabled windows. It is nothing like Leyte Manor, of course. That is our home in the Cotswolds that we are leaving. But it has a romantic name, hasn't it? Avalon."
"Perhaps it will be romantic, Lady Devenish."
"With those snowy mountains as a backdrop." Lady Devenish was clasping her hands tightly. "Cold," she muttered. "Cold, cold." She seemed to be shivering. Presently, however, she composed herself.
"Forgive me, Miss O'Connor. It's my wretched nerves, which Celina has, too. We have both been having ridiculous dreams about sheep. Oh, dear Miss O'Connor, you will come with us, won't you? And help us to be brave."
"Am I to come?" Kate cried.
She wanted to throw her arms round the little quivering figure and reassure her, as one would a child. Why was she so suddenly taken up with this family? In half an hour she was identifying with them, the adventurous husband with his ideals about a new colony, a Utopia on earth, and now this slender thread of a woman with the fearfulness coming and going in her eyes.
What about the daughter?
"Oh, yes, I think you are to come, my dear. My husband wouldn't have allowed me to waste my time on someone unsuitable. But naturally we will have long discussions and we will want to see you again. Celina must see you. Have we your address so that we can send you a message?"
Excerpted from An Important Family by Dorothy Eden. Copyright © 1982 Dorothy Eden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Classic Dorlothy Eden Forgot how much i enjoyed reading her books Highly reccommend