The Duke’s Estate at Berkley Square, London 1798.
“And they lived happily ever after,” Miss Wilson, Nigel’s governess, said as she finished his bedtime story.
“I want to be like the prince who saved the day,” Nigel Witberry said with a shy smile that revealed the absence of his front two teeth. Images of being in the fairy tale that had just been read to him filled his eight-year-old mind. The night was the same as every other, his governess reading him bedtime stories. She was the mother figure he had. Nigel’s mother had died since his birth, but it didn’t stop him from being a cheerful child. However, he was excited at the moment because his father had just arrived from one of his numerous trips. Nigel enjoyed it when his father told him about his adventures, and he wanted to listen to his father’s tales each time he came home. He had been disappointed when his father, the Duke, had insisted that he go to bed despite his pleas. Nigel was determined not to miss out on what his father had seen. He knew his father had traveled across the seven oceans and was curious to know what was beyond England.
Nigel didn’t want to wait till morn because his father wouldn’t have time to tell his tales again. His father had to attend to estate matters, and Nigel knew he would have lots to deal with. The longer the Duke spent in his travels, the more he had to make up for in his return. Nigel’s father would handle all the matters before setting out on another one of his adventures.
“You can be anything you want to be,” Miss Wilson responded with an answering smile. He held his governess’s words in his heart. He was determined to make his dream of seeing the many different animal species come to pass. He was going to be adventurer like his father.
“Good night,” Miss Wilson said as she covered Nigel’s small form with the linen blanket. Nigel shut his eyes as he feigned sleep. He watched as Miss Wilson put out most of the candles. She left enough light to illuminate the room before she exited. Nigel waited for what seemed like forever before he removed the linen Miss Wilson had used to cover him and got out of the bed. He had only one thing in mind: to hear the tales of his father’s travels, even if it meant leaving his bed when he should be sleeping.
Nigel bit his lower lip when the door creaked as he gently opened it. He hoped no one had heard his door. Nigel became more confident when he recalled that the servants would be in their quarters already. He stepped out of his bedchamber, which was located close to the nursery. All he had on was his night garment.
He quietly crept down the hallway with a destination in mind, his father’s study. He had no doubt his father would still be there, especially since the Duke’s friends were visiting. Nigel had always been a curious child, but he had never attempted to sneak out of his room like this before. He prayed his father wouldn’t have his head for it.
“My eyes have seen beautiful animals the King would give his crown to have,” Nigel smiled as he heard his father’s loud voice. He quickened his steps towards the direction of his father’s study. It was where his father usually told his stories. Nigel was surprised that his father’s friends had not left. Nigel knew they stayed despite the late hour to hear his father’s adventures. He assumed Lord Stanford sat on the right while Sir Greenmore sat on the left. Sir Greenmore was a tall man, while Lord Standford wasn’t favored in height; he was a short man while his head was starting to go bald. However, the similarities between his father’s friends were their kind eyes. It didn’t matter that their eye colors were different. Sir Greenmore had amber eyes, while Lord Stanford had deep blue eyes. Nigel’s father was the complete opposite of the two men. He was taller than Sir Greenmore and had brown eyes.
“King George III would do no such thing,” Nigel heard Sir Greenmore respond.
“I beg to differ. I heard that he is suffering from a mental illness. It means he might make decisions one would not expect,” Lord Standford replied while he looked deep in thought. The news of the ailing King was everywhere. Lord Stanford like the rest of England was worried about the decisions made by someone who wasn’t in his right state of mind. The fate of England was uncertain.
“I believe those are rumors,” Sir Greenmore replied.
“They aren’t. I heard about yet another one of King George’s attacks. As we speak, the parliament is trying to pass a bill for a prince regent,” Nigel's father said.
Nigel wanted his father to continue his tales; he was more interested in those than the politics they were now discussing. He started thinking that his trip out of his bedchamber was a waste, but he decided to stay anyway. The darkness of the hallway gave him the cover he needed; all that was left was for his father to continue his tales.
“Who would that be?” Lord Stanford asked.
“Who else but the Prince of Wales?” Sir Greenmore said.
“I hope you know that these are mere speculations on what to do about the ailing King, and I trust your discretion on this,” Nigel's father said.
“You can trust our utmost discretion, Your Grace,” Sir Greenmore and Lord Stanford both agreed.
“Where was I?” Nigel’s father asked. Nigel was elated that his father was going to continue his tales.
“You were speaking of the elegance of the parrot, Your Grace,” Sir Greenmore said.
“It is indeed elegant. I spent a fortune to have it drawn,” Nigel's father continued. Nigel saw they had cups within their reach. He knew they were either filled with wine or rum because those were his father’s favorite drinks.
“I had Mr. Treton draw it alongside the other animals we saw,” Nigel's father said. Mr. Treton was one of the best artists in London, and Nigel’s father took him along on most of his trips. Nigel’s curiosity was piqued. His father picked up one of the documents on his desk and opened it a bit.
“This is it,” he said.
“You should have a look at it,” Nigel watched as his father passed Lord Standford the document.
“You would agree that you have never seen a parrot as beautiful as that before,” Nigel heard his father say as Lord Standford stared transfixed at the document’s picture.
“I saw a lion. It looked fiery and beautiful at the same time. Its golden mane covered almost all of its face. I was mesmerized at this sight,” Nigel heard his father continue as Lord Standford opened the document wider. Nigel’s eyes widened at his father’s words because Nigel had never seen a lion before. He tried to imagine the animal his father was describing and wished he was old enough to follow him on his travel expeditions.
“These animals are beautiful. It is almost impossible to believe they exist,” Lord Stanford said after a long while. Nigel peeped at the three men in his father’s study; their friendship bond was unmistakable. Everyone in London knew that the three friends were inseparable. Lord Standford passed the document to Sir Greenmore. Nigel knew the document showed the parrot his father spoke about, and all the other animals he had seen. He wished he could look at the book but couldn’t allow his father to catch him.
Sir Greenmore turned his back towards the door, holding the document high. Nigel stretched his neck to see what was on the document. The half-opened door of the study didn’t give him the view he wanted; hence, Nigel stretched his head to have a better glimpse of it. It was futile; Nigel decided to gently open the door further and hoped the men would be too engrossed in their talk to notice.
He took a sharp breath and gently pushed the door open. He froze when the door creaked. Everyone in his father’s study stopped talking.
Please, let them ignore it. Nigel thought while retreating into the hallway’s darkness, ensuring the men didn’t see him. Nigel’s hopes about remaining unseen were dashed when he heard his father ask,
“Nigel, what are you doing out of bed at this late hour?”
Suddenly, Nigel became nervous. He realized that everyone was staring at him.
“Nigel, I beg you to quit whatever games you are playing. It’s late, and you should be in bed,” Nigel's father repeated. Nigel knew his cover had been blown. Hence, he stepped out of the shadow and entered the study. Nigel bowed his head, as he could not look his father in the eye.
“I thought Miss Wilson took you to bed,” his father suggested. Nigel peeped at him from beneath his lashes and was relieved that his father didn’t seem angry.
“I didn’t want to go to sleep. I wanted to see the animals you visited during your travels,” Nigel quietly said.
“Your Grace, permit me to say your son is a smart child. You shouldn’t deny him the joys of knowing the beauty that lays beyond England,” Sir Greenmore said. At that moment, Nigel’s admiration for the Baron grew multiple folds.
“I agree with Sir Greenmore. It wouldn’t harm if you let him stay up for a night to listen to your discoveries,” Lord Stanford added. Nigel wanted to worship at his father’s friend's feet for putting in a word for him.
Nigel watched his father sigh before he said,
“You can stay if you want.”
Nigel gave a broad smile on hearing this and skipped to the corner of the room and took a sit.
He watched his father shake his head with amusement lurking in his eyes.
“You can’t blame him for his interest. He has your blood running in his veins,” Sir Greenmore said, and Nigel beamed. Everyone in London knew the Duke had a love for zoology. The Duke and his friends were famous for their knowledge of animals. However, the Duke was the most well-versed amongst them. It could be a result of his frequent travels compared to his friends. The Duke had seen zoos with exotic animals all over Europe and beyond.
“Would you like to have a look?” Sir Greenmore asked with a smile. Nigel rapidly nodded, and his father chuckled.
“Be careful with it,” Sir Greenmore said as he passed the document to Nigel. Nigel eagerly took hold of it and held it with care. He was awestruck when he saw the drawing of the parrot his father had been speaking about. He realized his father had been right about getting mesmerized by the animal. It was a beautiful white parrot. Nigel had never heard of white parrots before; hence, he had no doubt that the one he was staring at was special. He continued looking at the document and found images of peacocks, snakes, and other exotic animals.
“Your Grace, you said you have something important to discuss with us,” Lord Stanford said. The conversation partially filtered into Nigel’s ears as he delved deeper into the document he held.
“Yes, I do. I thought of something during this last trip. I’ve seen zoos in other parts of Europe and none have been undertaken solely for educational reasons. I know there might be people like me who have an interest in animals but don’t have the resources to travel far and wide to see them,” Nigel's father said.
Nigel was now paying rapt attention to his father’s words.
“I thought it would be a great idea to develop a zoo for education and entertainment. I’m thinking of cooperating with the Zoological Society of London,” Nigel’s father said. Nigel had stopped going through the document at this point. All that rang in his head was that there would be a zoo where he could freely visit animals he had always longed to see. He wanted to beg his father to do it, but Miss Wilson’s lessons on courtesy held him back.
“That is a brilliant idea, Your Grace. We get to have exotic animals here, and people can see them outside of the drawings,” Sir Greenmore said.
“I agree with Sir Greenmore. It will be a perfect way to take people’s minds off their worries and allow them to see different beautiful creatures,” Lord Standford said.
“Also, having different species of animals in London would give young people the opportunity to learn about zoology and maybe choose it as a profession in the future,” Sir Greenmore added.
“You’re right Sir Greenmore. Although, the study of animals isn’t common yet, I believe there are people like us out there who love zoology. But for some reason, they aren’t able to pursue their dreams. It would be a perfect opportunity for them to have animals they can study within their reach,” Lord Stanford continued.
Nigel couldn’t believe what they were saying. He was excited to know his father and friends wanted to bring the animals he had longed to see to London. He watched his father smile on hearing his friend’s response to the idea. Nigel was young but admired the friendship between the three of them. Their friendship was energetic, and it was clear that they all supported each other.
“I hope you aren’t saying this because of my title?” Nigel's father asked.
“Your Grace, as much as we respect you, we are friends, and if you did something inappropriate, we wouldn’t hesitate to let you know. You have made us understand that our titles aren’t a boundary to our friendship,” Sir Greenmore said.
“I’d also like to add that I’ve wondered what it would be like to have a zoo here, but I’ve never thought of a plan that would make it happen,” Lord Stanford said.
“I have land in mind for the zoo. I’m waiting for the response of the Zoological Association of London,” Nigel's father said.
“This will require a lot of resources and money,” Lord Stanford said.
“I know, I can provide for this, but it would affect the finances of my estate. I wanted to know if the both of you would like to join me on the venture?” Nigel heard his father say.
“It will be an honor to be a part of this,” Sir Greenmore said.
“Yes, it will be an honor, and I’ll provide the resources needed,” Lord Stanford said.
Nigel could barely hold back his smile as he listened to them. His imagination ran wild as he thought of visiting a park for exotic animals. Nigel was intrigued about what it would be like.
The Duke’s Estate at Berkley Square, London 1815.
“It is such a sad thing that Sir Greenmore is no more,” Nigel said as he sat in his father’s studies. He knew Sir Greenmore’s death was still a shock to his father. That was expected since Sir Greenmore was one of the two friends who shared a strong bond with the Duke. Nigel respected the Baron even after his death. Nigel recalled the day his admiration for his father’s friend increased exponentially. Sir Greenmore had convinced his father to allow Nigel to indulge in his love for animals.
It was ironic that Nigel was currently sitting in the same study, but things were different now. Back then, he had been a young child among three men who shared everything, including dreams. He had been there to listen to stories, but now he sat as a young man who mourned the death of a great man. He was no longer the carefree child with no worries, save fairy tale stories and lessons from his governess. Now, he had responsibilities to take care of, especially since he was the Marquess of Lansdowne.
“I wonder why apoplexy had struck him. He didn’t deserve the pain it caused,” Nigel heard his father say. His father still had his back turned to him as he gazed out the window. They had just returned from Sir Greenmore’s funeral. It explained why Nigel’s father was acting unusual. He had just said his final goodbye to a dear friend.
“No one deserves to die in such pain. I believe he is better off relieved from the pain,” Nigel said.
At this, his father turned and said, “you’re right, but I’ll miss him dearly,”
Nigel noticed his father’s face was etched in sadness. It was tragic that just as they were all about to reap the benefits of the years of hard work and resilience his father and friends had put into building a zoo for exotic animals, death had decided to snatch one of them away.
His father and Lord Stanford had put the project on hold during Sir Greenmore’s ailment. Nigel knew the zoo had always been their dream, so he had volunteered to help them by taking over the project and supervising the building of the first animal houses. Nigel was troubled because he needed more money and knowledge regarding the building of the animal houses, and Sir Greenmore was supposed to provide it.
Now that he was dead and his fortune had been passed to his brother, Nigel couldn’t get the resources he needed to finish the project.
“Sir Greenmore’s brother wasn’t present at his burial. How callous of him,” Nigel's father said as though he could read Nigel’s mind.
“I heard there was no love lost between them,” Nigel said.
“You’re right, son. Sir Greenmore has never been in support of his brother’s ways. I don’t know much about it, but I think Sir Reginald was the black sheep in the family. It’s such a shame that the title has been passed to him,” Nigel's father said. Nigel understood that his father didn’t want to address Sir Greenmore’s brother as any other name than Sir Reginald. To his father there was only one Sir Greenmore, and that was his friend.
“He should have arrived in London by now if not for anything but to claim his new title,” Nigel said with arched brows.
“No one knows the way his mind works. This is a man who lacked the decency to come and give his brother his last respect. I don’t expect much from him,” Nigel's father replied.
They were in the middle of this when they heard a knock on the door. Nigel and his father diverted their attention to it and watched as Fred, the butler, made his appearance.
“I apologize for the intrusion Your Grace, my Lord,” Fred said as he gave a curt bow to Nigel and his father.
“There is a man here to see Your Grace. He says he is Mr. Henshaw,” Fred announced. The Duke’s eyes widened. Mr. Henshaw was a lawyer, and the Duke clearly wondered why he had come calling.
“I summoned him father. I thought it would be best if we discuss Sir Reginald with him. As you said, he is unpredictable. I thought it would be best if we prepare for anything,” Nigel said.
“You should have told me about this,” his father said with a frown.
“I apologize for that. I had it in mind to tell you some weeks back, but you were still mourning the loss of your friend,” Nigel responded.
The Duke was silent for a while before he said, “you can bring him in.”
“I’ll do that, Your Grace,” Fred said before he left.
“I don’t think calling for Mr. Henshaw’s services is necessary. The best we can do is discuss the situation with Sir Reginald and convince him to release the money. This was his brother’s legacy,” The Duke said with a frown.
“I thought of that, but I also think it’s best if we know our rights under the law,” Nigel said as the door opened, and Mr. Henshaw entered.
“Good day, Your Grace,” he said with a curt bow before he turned his attention to Nigel and said, “good day Lord Lansdowne.”
“Good day Mr. Henshaw,” Nigel and his father said simultaneously.
“I’m honored to be invited into your home, Your Grace,” Mr. Henshaw said.
“Thank you for coming on such short notice,” Nigel replied.
“Please, have a seat,” the Duke said as he took his seat behind the desk. Mr. Henshaw sat in the closest available chair.
“I was talking to my father about our last discussion,” Nigel said.
“I’m afraid, Your Grace, if Sir Reginald refuses to follow through with what his brother had started, then there is nothing you can do about it,” Mr. Henshaw said. This caused the Duke to frown.
“Sir Greenmore agreed to be a part of this project. It’s only right that his brother follows through with it,” Nigel’s father said.
“It sounds like the right thing to do, but Sir Reginald isn’t obligated to fund the project. It would have been easier if there was a binding contract cementing Sir Greenmore’s role in the project, then Sir Reginald wouldn’t be able to excuse himself from the responsibility,” Mr. Henshaw said.
“I agree with you on that. It would have been a good idea to have a binding contract between us because of unforeseen circumstances like this, and Sir Greenmore suggested it. However, I hadn’t taken the right steps towards it, and now I have to take full blame for not thinking of a possible tragedy like this,” The Duke said with his head bowed.
“Father, you shouldn’t blame yourself. There is no way you could have envisioned that Sir Greenmore would die. Regardless, there is no point trying to blame yourself as there is nothing we can do now,” Nigel said.
“May I speak?” Mr. Henshaw asked.
“Please,” The Duke said.
“I suggest you speak with Sir Greenmore’s widow. She might be able to speak with Sir Reginald about this,” Mr. Henshaw said.
“No, I can’t do that. She has just laid her husband to rest some hours ago and is still in mourning. I’m not selfish enough to think of discussing matters like this during such a period,” the Duke said.
“I agree with my father,” Nigel said.
“Your Grace, what if we sent a note to her in a few days’ time?” Mr. Henshaw asked.
“I don’t want to disturb my friend’s widow, and I’m not going to send a messenger to her to discuss the matter. We all know she has little power on this issue. There is little chance that Sir Reginald would listen to her,” the Duke said. Nigel knew his father was right; it was unfortunate that all the financial power was now out of Sir Greenmore’s wife’s hands.
“That’s fine father but I need to get the rest of Sir Greenmore’s building plans,” Nigel said.
“How do you intend to get those notes?” the Duke asked with a skeptical look.
“I was thinking perhaps I should go and get the notes myself,” Nigel said. He refrained from telling his father that he had another reason to visit Sir Greenmore’s home.
His thoughts lingered on the face connected to the name.
He wanted to see how Elise and her sisters were faring. He believed his visit would be acceptable to Elise and her sisters, as he was a good friend of the family.
“Perhaps, you should get the plans yourself. You can continue on the project with the notes until Sir Reginald reaches England,” the Duke said.
“Thank you, Father,” Nigel said.
He was shocked when his father said, “Lord Standford and I are impressed with what you’ve done so far. We thought you could be an official part of the team now that Sir Greenmore is dead. That’s if you don’t mind.”
“I’m not sure what to say Father, but it will be an honor to be a part of the greatness the three of you started,” Nigel said with a smile.
“I’ll relay your decision to Lord Stanford,” The Duke said.
Nigel felt this was a starting point. He had a desire to learn more, and it would be an honor to do so through Sir Greenmore’s notes and the lessons of his father and Lord Stanford. His mind briefly drifted to the late Baron’s daughters, and wondered if Sir Greenmore had been able to pass his knowledge to any of them. His mind drifted to one of them in particular, Elise. The woman who had captivated him throughout the funeral, and after.
Sir Greenmore’s Mansion, Berkley Square, London.
“Mother, please, this wait is unbecoming,” Elise watched her older sister Sarah as they waited for their mother to speak.
Sarah was the eldest of them, and Rachel was next before Elise. Elise realized her mother looked like she had aged several years within the last two weeks; she looked different from the woman Elise had called “mother” her whole life. Her eyes looked sunken in, and she looked pale. It was the effect of losing one’s husband.
Elise was numb to everything because she still found it hard to believe that her father had been laid to rest. They had tried everything to save their father; they hadn’t gone to any balls organized throughout the season. However, Elise had no regrets about that little sacrifice, as they were able to stay close to their father during his last days. She was worried their mother had called this meeting and hadn’t spoken a word since they arrived in the sitting room.
“Mother? Will you please speak to us?” Rachel asked.
“Now that your father is no more... We have a new protector of the estate,” their mother finally spoke after a long silence.
“A new protector? Pray tell, who is he?" Rachel was the first to speak after their mother had dropped the bombshell.
“Your father’s brother, didn’t know who their Reginald,” their mother said. The three ladies squinted their brows. They had never seen the man their mother was talking about, but they knew of his existence.
“But…we don’t even know him that well…” Sarah said. It was the same thing on her sisters’ minds.
“I didn’t think the three of you would be acquainted with him in this manner, but it has to happen,” their mother said as she broke into a sob.
Silence descended in the sitting room.
“Mother, this man is going to be the protector of the estate. How come we never knew about his existence? Do you mean that he is going to start living with us?” Rachel asked.
“You never met him because your father never took a liking to him. As for your other question, my dear, he will stay with us now that he has control of everything that was your father’s,” their mother answered. The girls tried to let this sink. They would have to accept living with a man they hardly knew.
“Sarah and Rachel have met him before, but you were both very little. It was the last time he came to see your father. It must explain why you don’t remember him,” their mother said.
“I think I know who you refer to as Uncle Reginald. I have vague memories of him, but it seemed the time you are speaking of was when Father invited everyone, including Aunt Lisa and Marie,” Sarah said. The two ladies were their father’s distant cousins.
“I think I remember who mother speaks of now. I recall that other family members did not like to have him around,” Rachel said while Elise paid rapt attention. She had no recollection of the man they were speaking about. She was sure she hadn’t been born when he had last visited.
“You’re both right. Elise was still a baby at the time, so she has never seen him. Reginald wasn’t favored by the rest of the family, but your father never told me why that was,” their mother admitted.
“If he hadn’t been favored, what makes you think he would like to be our protector?” Sarah asked with an incredulous look.
“Perhaps, he would be considerate of us in our hour of need. I hope Reginald will be able to put aside whatever rivalry kept him away from your father and the rest of the family,” Their mother said. Elise felt sick as she listened to this. Elise didn’t know what to expect from a man who might feel as if they were a burden to him. This was one of the things she had feared about a stranger trying to take her father’s place. It didn’t matter if that stranger was her uncle, for as far as she was concerned, he was a stranger.
“Mother, I’d like to take my leave,” Elise said as she stood.
“I’d like to think about what you’ve said,” she hurriedly added when they all gave her an inquisitive look.
She wanted to escape from listening to further conversation about her Uncle Reginald and the possible fate that awaited them.
“Everything will be alright, my dear,” Elise's mother said, while Elise responded with a forced smile. Elise left the sitting room, and the only place she could think of to escape to was her father’s study. It was one of the rooms in the house that held vivid memories of her father.
Elise entered her father’s study, and memories of seeing him behind the desk assailed her. She recalled seeing her father making findings about different animals. Elise took tentative steps towards her father’s desk and was drawn to the documents on the table. She sat on her father’s chair and opened the nearest one. She was amazed to see drawings of different animals. There were notes about each animal, and Elise started reading them out of curiosity. She had known her father was knowledgeable in zoology, but reading the documents gave her a clearer understanding of who he was.
“A hyena,” she muttered as she read the description of the first animal that got her attention. Elise enjoyed the information in the document so much that she didn’t notice she had spent the whole of her morning and the beginning of her afternoon in her father’s office looking over his notes. All of his notes were on the that were to be included in the zoo of exotic animals.
Elise knew her father, the Duke, and Lord Stanford had worked on the zoo for years. She wanted to do whatever she could to help his friends realize their goals.
It was a shame that she had no power to offer them the money they had been promised before her father passed away.
Elise’s face held a sad smile as she recalled listening to her father explain the different animals to her. From a young age, she had never been able to clarify her intrigue about the animal world. It was why she didn’t think she would ever be able to get over her father’s unexpected death. Elise knew there was no way Uncle Reginald could replace her father. The uncertainty of her uncle’s arrival bothered her. She didn’t need anyone to tell her it would significantly change their life.
Elise wished things were different, and they didn’t need Uncle Reginald to take over as their protector. Still, she knew better than to believe that. It was the way of the law. Elise hoped the parliament would change things. For the time being, however, Elise was determined to ensure she wouldn’t be affected by her uncle’s arrival. She was determined to live her life the way she had always dreamt of.
The Duke’s Estate at Berkley Square, London.
“I will send a message to you about what we’ve discussed,” Nigel's father said as Lord Braxton stood to leave. Nigel had thought it would be a great idea to make use of the Earl’s ships to bring in more exotic animals. It was the reason for their meeting. Lord Braxton was skeptical about the plan because he feared what having animals on his ship would cost him, especially when one of the animals was an elephant. An animal he knew was favored by size.
“I think you should think this through. You stand to gain a lot if you agree to this proposition,” Nigel pressed.
“I’ll take everything you’ve said into consideration,” Lord Braxton said.
“I’ll take my leave now, Your Grace,” Lord Braxton said.
“We hope to hear from you again,” Nigel's father said.
Lord Braxton gave a curt bow before he left the study.
“I wish I could get Sir Greenmore’s plans faster,” Nigel announced as soon as Lord Braxton left.
“I don’t think the household is ready to deal with this,” the Duke replied.
Nigel was about to say something when they heard a knock. They shared a look, wondering if Lord Braxton had changed his mind that fast. They were surprised when Fred entered the room.
“I apologize for the intrusion, your Grace. Lord Lansdowne has a letter,” Fred announced.
“A letter. From whom?” Nigel asked with an inquisitive look.
“The messenger said it’s from Sir Greenmore’s house,” Fred responded.
Nigel and his father sat up expectantly.
“Can I have the letter?” Nigel asked, and Fred placed it in his palm.
“Thank you,” Nigel said.
“I’ll take my leave,” Fred said before he left the study.
“Has Sir Reginald arrived?” the Duke asked. Both of them believed Sir Reginald was the one who had sent the letter.
“Perhaps, he has,” Nigel said as he removed the seal on the letter and opened it.
Dear Lord Lansdowne,
I appreciate the kindness and concern you and His Grace have shown towards us. We do not take this for granted. My father’s death saddens me, but I will be filled with regret if I watch his dreams die with him. I stumbled upon some notes, which I think might be helpful for the zoo, and it will be a pleasure to hand them to you. I can send them to you, or you can come and take them yourself. I’d like to help in any way I can. I’ve already sorted the notes, and I’m confident you will find the content beneficial. Pray, do tell me how you would like the notes delivered. I await your response.
Lady Elise Greenmore
Nigel couldn’t believe what he had just read. It was disarming the way that shy Elise had taken such a bold step.
“What does it say?” the Duke asked.
“It’s from Lady Elise,” Nigel said with a broad smile.
“Sir Greenmore’s daughter?” the Duke asked. He couldn’t hide his surprise from Nigel.
“Yes, she says she would like me to have her father’s notes as she thinks it will help us with the zoo construction,” Nigel said as he passed the letter to his father.
“That’s thoughtful of her,” the Duke said, clearly impressed as he read the letter’s contents.
“What do you intend on doing?” he asked.
“Elise has decided to help; there is no use waiting. I’ll visit Elise and the family to see how they are faring and to retrieve the notes,” Nigel said.
“I wish I will be visiting them for a different reason. After all, Elise was a good friend of mine before I had to leave for my education,” Nigel added, and the Duke nodded in approval.
“You should write to her then,” the Duke said.
“I’ll do that. This is what I’ve been waiting for. I believe this is Sir Greenmore’s way of giving his approval,” Nigel said with a broad smile.
“I can add to the notes with the knowledge I’ve gathered from learning and listening to the stories the three of you have shared over the years, as well as the time I had spent studying zoology. The effort should bring the best out of the zoo,” Nigel said.
“I agree with you on this. You need to continue the project as soon as possible,” The Duke said.
“I’ll do that. First, I’ll go to the Greenmore’s mansion to get the notes. I’ll think of the next step after that,” Nigel said as he rose.
“You have my blessing,” the Duke said.
“Thank you, Father. I’ll be back soon,” Nigel said as he left the study. Nigel wondered why a particular lady filtered into his mind as he left for the Greenmore estate. He anticipated seeing Elise more than the notes he was going to retrieve and didn’t understand why that would be so.
* * *
Sir Greenmore’s Mansion, Berkley Square, London.
“Please follow me, my lord,” the butler said as he led Nigel to Elise. Nigel had been surprised when he had received the letter from Elise just hours earlier. He had written Elise a quick response about how he would be coming for the notes himself. He had been glad when he received an equally fast response from Elise that he was welcome to come.
He recalled how they had played together as children during family gatherings. Nigel had been astonished when he had seen her again at her father’s burial. She had truly become a beautiful woman. The little child he had played with had disappeared; in her place was a petite figure with light brown, wavy hair and amber eyes that could hold anyone captive. He had to keep himself from staring at her during her father’s burial. He respected Sir Greenmore a lot; hence he forced himself to ignore Elise during the funeral. If he calculated correctly, Elise would be twenty-one soon. Still, she looked angelic enough to pass for a seventeen-year-old making her first debut.
Nigel wondered why she wasn’t yet married. He knew the gentlemen of the ton would want to have a beauty like her as a wife. He had learned that she wasn’t yet married because she and her sisters hadn’t attended any societal gatherings after Elise’s second season. He admired how they had chosen to take care of their father instead. He had been filled in on these details by his father earlier in the day.
He had seen the admiration in his father’s eyes as he had described Elise and her sisters. It was apparent that he held them in high esteem, and Nigel knew the Duke didn’t extend this respect to just anyone.
The butler led the way while Nigel followed him. They entered the drawing-room, and Nigel’s eyes found Elise almost immediately.
“My lady, Lord Lansdowne is here,” the butler said.
“Thank you, Prescott,” Nigel heard Elise’s angelic voice before the butler stepped aside, giving him a better view of the beauty in the drawing room. His heartbeat raced at the sight of her. Elise was a beauty that was rivaled by no other. Nigel recalled how she had looked pale and frail in her black clothes during the funeral. He was glad that she looked brighter now and was starting to glow again.
“My lady, would you like me to send for Mary or Gertrude?” Prescott asked. Nigel knew Prescott had asked because it was improper for her to be alone with him.
“You don’t have to call any of them. My meeting with Lord Lansdowne will be brief. It is about the business and personal affairs of my late father,” Elise explained. Prescott didn’t seem convinced, but he had no choice other than to respect Elise’s wishes.
“As you wish my lady. If would be excused now,” Prescott said with a bow.
“Please do,” Elise said before he left.
“Thank you for coming, Lord Lansdowne,” Elise said with a broad smile as she returned her attention to Nigel. Nigel was tongue-tied as her features were enhanced by the smile.
Nigel forced himself to step forward as the butler excused himself. His legs felt rubbery as he got closer to Elise.
“Thank you for having me on this short notice,” Nigel said.
“Please, take a seat,” Elise said, as she sat facing Nigel.
“What would you like to have, wine or perhaps beer?”
“You don’t have to worry about that my lady,” Nigel said. He couldn’t help but notice the light blush that stained Elise’s cheeks.
“I’m sorry about your loss. Your father was a great man,” Nigel said. He watched her face transform, making him wonder if he had said anything wrong.
“Thank you,” Elise said. “I wanted to ensure the notes get to you as fast as possible. It’s the least I could do,” Elise added.
“I appreciate your efforts,” Nigel said.
“Here are the documents and notes. These were the ones I could lay my hands on. If I find more, I’ll send them your way,” Elise said as she pointed at the stacks of documents and notes close to the chaise. Nigel was surprised; he hadn’t expected so many notes.
“This is a lot more than I expected but I’m not complaining,” Nigel said as Elise beamed.
“You haven’t changed much, my lord,” she said with a broad smile.
“I can’t say the same for you. You’ve grown to be more beautiful than you were as a child, and you’re clearly a smart woman,” Nigel said. Elise almost became red at his words.
“You flatter me, my Lord,” she said with a smile.
“These aren’t mere flowery words but the truth, my lady,” Nigel said and gave her a dashing grin. He was glad to see the effect on Elise’s face.
He frowned when Elise’s smile suddenly dropped. He was about to ask her what was amiss when she said,
“My mother told me our uncle will be our protector, and he is the one you will have to talk to when he arrives in town,” Elise said. “This is as much as I can give. I have no authority over the money, and I’m sorry we can’t give it to you despite my father’s promise.”
“You know about your father’s promise?” Nigel asked, clearly surprised.
“Yes, I do. He told me about it before the apoplexy struck,” Elise explained.
“The power to release the money rests with my uncle who will arrive soon. I believe you should talk to him. Perhaps he will honor my father’s words and give you the money,” Elise said.
“Thank you for this, Lady Elise,” Nigel said as he refrained from telling her he knew all this information.
“Thank you for putting these notes and documents in order. I’ll make sure I speak with your uncle once he arrives,” Nigel said. He watched as a bit of light showed on her face again.
“I wish you the best. I’m afraid I think my uncle is unpredictable. I don’t know what to expect of him,” Elise said. Nigel was touched at her concern; the worry in her eyes was evidence of the struggle she was going through.
“It’s bad enough that I’ve never met him before and my sisters only have vague memories of him,” Elise said as she nervously bit her lower lip.
“I’ve never met him either, but I’m sure you have nothing to worry about,” Nigel said reassuringly.
“I apologize for allowing my feelings to get the better part of me,” Elise said as she recovered. She was dismayed at how she had let down her guard.
“I appreciate that you chose to speak with me about your worries,” Nigel responded.
“Thank you, my lord,” Elise said.
“You’re welcome. I’d like to take my leave now,” Nigel said.
“I’ll have Prescott help you bring the documents to your carriage,” Elise said.
“Thank you,” Nigel said as he left the room.
“He is here,” Sarah said as she rushed into the sitting room to join Elise and their mother.
“Who do you speak of?” their mother asked with a puzzled expression. Rachel entered the room with a similarly puzzled expression.
“Uncle Reginald,” Sarah said. Elise’s mother sat up on hearing this.
“I saw a coach from my window coming towards the house. We aren’t expecting any visitor except Uncle Reginald,” Sarah said.
“That can’t be possible. The letter he sent said he would be arriving in a fortnight,” their mother said as she stood. Elise was quiet as her family discussed Uncle Reginald. They were in the middle of this conversation when Prescott hurried toward the front door.
“Who else would pay us a visit in an expensive carriage this early in the morning?” Rachel asked. They would have assumed the carriage belonged to a potential suitor if they had been out for the season. Elise, her siblings, and their mother waited for Prescott to tell them who had come calling.
“My lady, Sir Greenmore is here,” Prescott said as he entered the sitting room minutes later.
Elise froze on hearing the name and was still trying to wrap her head around it when she heard her mother’s greeting.
“Reginald, we are pleased to see you.”
At this point, Elise noticed her uncle had entered the sitting room. He didn’t seem fifty years old like her mother had told them. Elise tried to place the similarities between him and her father but found none except they were both tall. Uncle Reginald was skinny with a goat’s beard and unruly hair. He also had dark sideburns, and Elise felt uneasy as his gaze swept across the sitting room.
“Welcome Uncle Reginald, we are delighted that you have arrived,” Sarah said.
“Are you really pleased to see me?” Uncle Reginald asked.
“You joke, Reginald; you know you are always welcome here. Although, I must admit that we weren’t expecting you to arrive so soon,” Elise's mother said.
“I can come anytime I please. This is now my house,” Uncle Reginald said. The benefit of the doubt Elise had given him before his arrival dissipated when she saw his air of arrogance. His overconfidence and bad temperament didn’t go unnoticed by Elise.
“I didn’t mean it that way,” Elise’s mother tried to say.
“Where are the rest of the staff?” he asked as he glanced around. Elise looked at her sisters; they appeared puzzled as her.
“Reginald, don’t you think you should be resting. I’m sure you must have had a long trip,” Elise’s mother said as Prescott went to call the staff together. Elise knew her mother was trying to make Uncle Reginald comfortable, but he wasn’t cooperating. It felt like he couldn’t wait to take over from where Elise's father had stopped.
“I’m fine. This visit has been long overdue, but I had to deal with my business before coming,” Uncle Reginald said with a dismissive tone. His face was scrunched in displeasure as though coming to take over his brother’s properties was a horrendous task. Elise watched as he impatiently scanned the room.
“Still, I think you should have something to drink. We were about to break our fast when you arrived. It wouldn’t hurt to join us,” Elise's mother said. Elise and her sisters were increasingly becoming irritated at Uncle Reginald’s attitude. Before issuing commands, he didn’t bother with getting familiar with them.
“Sophia, there will be more than enough opportunities for us to break our fast together,” Uncle Reginald said with a forced smile. Elise’s mother nodded and gave him an answering smile. Elise noticed the atmosphere had become tense since her uncle’s arrival. Prescot returned with the rest of the staff, and Uncle Reginald turned to face them.
“My goodness, Donald has been wasting resources for years,” he said, and everyone frowned. Elise didn’t know where he was going with that statement.
“What do you mean, Reginald?” Elise’s mother asked.
“Why would he have this much staff under one roof?” Uncle Reginald said.
“They aren’t much. They each have their own duties. Prescott, for instance, is our butler; Mrs. Briggs is our housekeeper. Peter, Macpherson, and Douglas are our gardeners,” Elise’s mother started to explain.
She hadn’t completely gotten the words out when she was interrupted.
“What do we need three gardeners for when one can do the job?” Uncle Reginald asked.
“That’s impossible. The garden will take days for a single person to tend,” Elise blurted out before she could help herself. She hated that it got Uncle Reginald to glance in her direction.
“What’s your name again?” he asked. Elise almost pointed out that he didn’t know his own niece’s name; it showed how much of a value he held his family.
“Elise,” she mumbled.
“Sophia, isn’t she the youngest child?” Uncle Reginald asked.
“Yes, she is,” Elise's mother replied.
“I expected she would be well versed in simple courtesy by now. She is in season, am I right?” he asked, and Elise’s mother nodded.
“Elise, you shouldn’t forget the lessons your governess must have taught you. It wouldn’t look good if you waste the fortune my brother must have spent to pay the governess,” Uncle Reginald said before he returned his attention to the staff.
“Where was I?” Uncle Reginald asked.
“Yes, I said I’ll have to let two of the gardeners go. Where are the three of them?” he demanded, and the three gardeners stepped forward.
“You’re staying,” he said as he pointed at Douglas. Elise didn’t think what he was doing was fair: Uncle Reginald had just appeared and was taking their livelihood. She wondered how Peter and Macpherson would survive if they were no longer workers at the estate. The sadness was written on their faces, and Elise knew they were trying their best not to breathe a word. This wasn’t what they deserved after their years of loyalty to the family, but Elise knew better than to speak.
“How many housekeepers do you have?” he asked Elise’s mother.
Elise watched her mother give Uncle Reginald a skeptical look before she mumbled, “one.”
“That’s fair enough,” he said.
“What’s your job here?” he asked Caroline.
“I'm one of the maids, my lord,” Caroline replied. Elise didn’t miss the quiver in her voice. Apparently, she feared that Uncle Reginald would no longer need her services.
“How many maids are here?” Uncle Reginald asked. He was least bothered by the fear written on Caroline’s face.
“We are seven in number,” Caroline stammered.
“Donald could never stop himself from spending money on unnecessary things,” Uncle Reginald said as he shook his head. Elise wanted to tell him that her father knew what he had been doing when he had employed their services.
“We only need two of you,” Uncle Reginald said.
“Where is the housekeeper?” he asked as Mrs. Briggs stepped forward.
“I want you to pick two of the maids to remain. The rest can leave,” Uncle Reginald said.
Elise and her sisters couldn’t believe what was happening. Elise was annoyed that Uncle Reginald thought he was more financially savvy than their father. She didn’t know about his financial status, but she still believed that her father had been wise in his spending. Uncle Reginald didn’t know that her father had employed most of the staff as a way to help them and their families. Each of them had a story that had brought them to the estate. Elise wished there was something she could do. They watched as Uncle Reginald cut down more than half of the staff.
“That will be all,” Uncle Reginald said after what seemed like a lifetime.
Elise watched as the staff dispersed with a sullen look. They obviously hadn’t expected things to turn out this way.
“That should settle it,” Uncle Reginald said after the staff had left.
“It’s good to see everyone again,” Uncle Reginald said with a smile, but Elise and her sisters weren’t smiling at him. Their mother managed to force a smile.
“It saddens my heart that Donald is no more, but I’m here to handle things properly from now on,” he said.
Elise and her sisters didn’t like the sound of that. They had witnessed firsthand what he could do and wondered what else he had in store for them.
“I commend you, Sophia, for a job well-done in decorating the house, but I think we need to lessen the expenses,” he said, and Elise gaped at him.
“We can discuss that later,” Uncle Reginald finally said with a dismissive hand wave.
“We can’t keep spending money on unnecessary things. I’m sure you will understand my decision later and will thank me for it,” Uncle Reginald said. Elise wanted to tell him she disagreed with his decision to cut costs. She suspected that the bare minimum staff they now had wasn’t for anyone’s benefit except Uncle Reginald. Elise was worried about what it meant. Uncle Reginald was ready to do whatever he could to keep the fortune all to himself.
Elise wondered if this was why her father had never invited Uncle Reginald to balls or gatherings in their home. Elise started to see the greedy aspect of her uncle and wished things had turned out different.
“This doesn’t mean that if you have something you might need money for, you shouldn’t approach me. I’ll try and be reasonable,” Uncle Reginald said with a smile. Elise and her sisters already saw through the façade, though, and couldn’t smile in response.
“I’d like to know where I’ll be sleeping,” Uncle Reginald said. “Hopefully, it is somewhere befitting my position,” he added.
“Of course there are several rooms you can choose from,” Elise’s mother tried to say. “I’ll have Mrs. Briggs arrange something,” she added.
“I want her to arrange the best room for me,” Uncle Reginald said.
Elise was filled with dread about the future for her, her mother, and her sisters.
* * *
“This is it,” Elise muttered as she approached Uncle Reginald. He was standing on the balcony with a cup of wine. He seemed deep in thought as he stared into the open field. It was evening, and Elise had thought about what she wanted to do all day.
Yet, now Elise had started having second thoughts about what she was about to do. Still, memories of how her father had spoken about the project with happiness radiating in his eyes were enough to push her forward. She wanted to talk to Uncle Reginald about the zoo. Uncle Reginald’s promise about speaking to him if they needed anything was enough basis to try having the discussion with him. Elise hoped that he would understand and do the right thing. Elise took a sharp intake of breath as she neared Uncle Reginald. He was still oblivious to her presence even as she stood behind him.
“Uncle Reginald,” Elise called out softly. She frowned when she got no response from him.
“Uncle Reginald,” she tried again before she touched his arm. She was startled when Uncle Reginald jumped and faced her with wide eyes.
“I’m sorry I startled you. I was calling you, but your mind seems far away,” Elise said before she swallowed. Uncle Reginald stared at her for a while like he was trying to figure out what to do with her. Elise wondered what had Uncle Reginald so deep in thought and why he had looked frightened at her touch.
“It’s alright,” Uncle Reginald said as he regained his confidence.
“What brings you here?” Uncle Reginald asked. Elise was reminded why she had sought him out.
“I wanted to talk to you about something, and it’s important,” Elise said.
Uncle Reginald stared at her for a while before he said, “go on, I’m all ears.”
“My father had many dreams before he died. He started a project with his close friends. Uncle Reginald you know Lord Stanford and the Duke decided to build a zoo for educational purposes,” Elise started. She tried to be careful with the words she used. She became more confident as Uncle Reginald paid her rapt attention.
“My father had promised continued investment in the zoo,” she continued and was surprised when Uncle Reginald started laughing.
Elise wondered what she had said that was funny.
“A zoo,” Uncle Reginald said in between his laughter. Elise realized he was laughing at the idea of the zoo.
“It’s a beautiful project,” Elise said as she tried not to show her annoyance. This was her father’s dream with his friends, and the fact that Uncle Reginald was making a joke out of it made her furious.
“Beautiful project indeed. The best way to describe it is a childish and foolish investment,” Uncle Reginald said with a bored tone.
“There is nothing childish about the idea. My father, the Duke, and Lord Stanford have worked on this project for years,” Elise said, unable to keep the annoyance out of her voice.
“Your father might have been a part of that foolish idea, but you can be sure that I’ll not spend any part of my money on such venture,” Uncle Reginald said. Elise noticed the deliberate emphasis on the part where he stated the fortune her father had left was now his.
“Uncle Reginald, trust me, the building is almost complete. We can visit the zoo, and you will be able to tell that it isn’t a foolish venture like you believe,” Elise said.
“I don’t need to see anything before I know what a bad investment is,” Uncle Reginald said with distaste.
“Are you saying the Duke is foolish?” Elise said and watched Uncle Reginald’s demeanor change. He knew it was a grievous offense to talk about the Duke in such a manner.
“I’ve not said that. I’ve only said I’ll never make such an investment decision unless I properly scope it out,” Uncle Reginald said. “Hearing it from you has only made it seem foolish,” he continued.
Elise decided not to be offended by his statement. It was evident Uncle Reginald didn’t believe in the zoo and would never put money into the project.
“Listen, I’ll think about it, and I promise that I will at least consider the idea,” Uncle Reginald. Elise knew he was making false promises and wanted to protest.
“I’ve had a long day, and I’d like to be alone,” Uncle Reginald said before she could say anything else. Elise knew it was the end of her conversation, especially with her uncle’s stoic face.
“I'll take my leave,” she said, but Uncle Reginald was quiet.
Elise left his presence and rushed to her room. Tears burned in her eyes because she could tell everything was going wrong. From the looks of it, there was no chance that Uncle Reginald would finance her father’s dream of building the zoo. She wanted to talk to someone; the only person she could think of was Nigel.
Elise smiled as she thought of Nigel. She pictured his round face, the freckles on it, and his red curly hair, which made him look dashing. His welcoming, warm smile made it easier to forget boundaries, and his dark blue eyes could see through anyone.
She recalled the last time he had visited. How she had wanted Nigel to spend more time with her because, with him, she had felt safe. It didn’t matter that they had barely seen each other in the last few years; Elise knew Nigel struck a chord in her. She felt speaking to him would help her forget her worries. The only way she could speak with him now was by writing a letter, but she didn’t think it would be a brilliant idea to write about her troubles to him.
Why not write to him as if I’m sharing my thoughts with him? she soliloquized as an idea struck her. With this thought in mind, Elise rushed to the table and started writing.
Dear Lord Lansdowne,
I apologize for writing you this note, but my mind is troubled. My Uncle arrived today, and it wasn’t the most pleasant experience. He has made changes in almost everything. Our house isn’t as blissful as it once was, which worries me. Uncle Reginald seems like he doesn’t care about us, but we don’t have a choice since we are saddled with him. The saddest part of this is that he doesn’t believe in the idea of the zoo. In his words, it is a foolish venture. However, I disagree with him. The zoo is the most brilliant thing I’ve heard of, and I’m proud my father decided to join the project. I wish there was something I could do, but it can’t happen. I know I have to be strong, but I’m scared of what would become of the zoo if Uncle Reginald doesn’t make the contribution on my father’s behalf.
Lady Elise Greenmore
Elise felt relieved as she ended the letter. It felt like she had just had a conversation with a friend. Elise stared at the letter and smiled because she had poured all her emotions into it. She wondered if Uncle Reginald would change his mind if the Duke spoke to him about the zoo. She recalled Uncle Reginald saying he was uncomfortable that she had brought up the discussion. Elise knew her uncle wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of the Duke.
“Maybe all isn’t lost after all,” Elise muttered as she folded the letter.
“It wouldn’t be such a bad idea to write letters like this anytime I need someone to talk to,” she whispered. Her subconscious mind reminded her that there was only one person she wished to write to in this manner. Elise decided to write about her worries and thoughts every night to the person she felt safest with. The only person that fit that description was Nigel.
“It is such a shame that my letters will never be sent to Nigel, though,” Elise muttered.
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