Proving My Sanity

byoggbashan©

"Mistresses?" I prompted.

"Household was the word he used in his letter but I think you are right. I confess to a certain curiosity myself, Cousin."

"You'll meet everyone this evening at dinner, the whole brood, mistresses and their children who are old enough to appear in company. Some are still babes in arms. But my main companions?"

I picked up a hand bell and rang it. Within half a minute Sumitra entered the room. James stood up as she entered. He bowed to her. She curtseyed to him.

"Mrs Andrews, this is my young cousin, James," I said. "James, this is my wife, Sumitra."

James bowed again. Sumitra curtseyed again. I cut their acknowledgements short.

"Sumitra, please could you arrange for tea to be served in the drawing room for us, and could the four be present if convenient?"

"I'm sure it will be, husband. They would like to meet your cousin."

"And I would be delighted to meet them, Mrs Andrews," James said.

Sumitra curtseyed and left. James remained standing after bowing to her. He waited to speak until the door had been shut.

"You use a hand bell to summon your wife?" James queried.

I laughed.

"Not normally, James. There are bell pulls in every room to summon servants. The hand bell is a recent innovation since I was laid low with a fever. If it had been rung by any one of my principal ladies, the rest of them would have responded quickly. Now I am much better but still weaker than I'd like to be, I ring it for social matters unlike the bell pulls for domestic affairs. To arrange tea? I could have used the bell pull. To arrange for my four principal ladies to meet you over tea? The hand bell seemed appropriate. My wife will summon a servant to produce the tea."

I stood up.

"I think we will go to the drawing room now. It is some distance away and I'm slower on my feet than I was a few weeks ago."

We walked along the lower corridor and up the principal staircase before turning into the long gallery. At the end, in the South West corner of the house was the drawing room. It had fine views over the estate. As I had expected the four women were already there. James bowed, and they curtseyed, as I introduced them to each other. I sat down while they went through the formal motions.

James enjoyed meeting them and they were pleased with his company, flirting with him within the bounds of polite convention. I told them that he would like to meet the whole household. Sumitra suggested that instead of at dinner which could be an ordeal, that the others should assemble in the long gallery in an hour's time. I agreed. Gita went off for a few minutes to arrange that.

Asha suggested that James might like to see the estate. We arranged that she and Meena would take James for a walk tomorrow morning. I suggested that James could stay until next weekend. He was dubious at first but Sumitra persuaded him. As my and now her only English relation she wanted him to stay as a guest for a few days.

"Wednesday is the christening," Meena said. "We'd like you to be there, James."

"The christening?" James queried.

"The christening," I said. "I have arranged with the vicar to christen all my children on Wednesday morning. He is also christening a number of the village children as well after their parents' marriages on Tuesday. Both will be major occasions for the village. You might enjoy attending one or both. I'll have to go. I'm paying for all of it."

"How many?" James blurted out, I think unintentionally.

"You'll meet Anthony's children shortly," Sumitra said. "At present there are twenty-five but there are several more on the way."

"I'm impressed, Sir," James said with a twinkle in his eye. "I'm sure Robert would be too."

+++

The long gallery was almost pandemonium until I shouted for quiet. My children recognise me and do take notice. I introduced James to the other eleven 'wives' all dressed in their best sarees, and the twenty-five children. The younger children were unimpressed. They wanted to be on the floor playing with their siblings.

James was a hit. He knelt down on the floor to meet some of the younger children, two or three of whom wanted to ride him. I lost sight of him for a while as he was surrounded by crinolined skirts and swirling sarees. Sumitra stood beside me, her hand tucked into my crooked arm, as we watched James play with the children.

"James is nice, isn't he?" Sumitra whispered in my ear. I nodded. I was too stiff and old, long beyond playing on the floor. I liked my children but in small regulated doses and only a few at a time. Fifteen women and twenty five children make a lot of noise when gathered together. I led Sumitra to the side of the long gallery. We sat down on a settee and watched.

I felt a twitch in my calf.

"Sumitra," I whispered, "My calf is twitching. I think I need to lie down and be massaged by Meena. Can you entertain James for me?"

"Of course, Anthony," Sumitra replied. "But I think he is being well entertained already. He seems to enjoy the children and he's very popular with their mothers."

"So he should be," I answered. "He's a very personable young gentleman. Please ensure the women don't go too far. They can kiss and hug him. He might be surprised by that much. He won't exceed the bounds of respectability. They shouldn't -- please?"

"Very well, husband. I'll get Meena. While you're gone James will be entertained -- and kissed."

Sumitra whispered in Meena's ear. Meena came to me and helped me to my feet. Sumitra got down beside James and spoke a few words to him. He replied. Sumitra put an arm around his shoulder and kissed James on the cheek. He stood up. As Meena and I walked out of the long gallery Sumitra was taking James to each wife in turn. They were all kissing him on the cheek, sometimes two of them at once. At the end of the gallery I turned back and waved at James. Only his head was visible above a crowd of women. He had to extricate himself from the latest kiss before he could return the wave.

Meena's massage was effective. I dozed for a while cradled in her arms. I woke up as Sumitra came into the bedroom.

"Anthony, if you are awake we want to discuss cricket. Mt Green and the others have inspected the meadow and would like to report to you."

"Thank you, Sumitra. I'll come to the study. Can you ask Cousin James, Gita and Asha to join me there. You'll arrange tea and cakes?"

"Of course, husband. Meena will help you to the study."

Sumitra left before I could protest I didn't need Meena's help. She was right. I was wrong. My legs were still stiff and weak. Meena massaged my calves and helped me to stand. She straightened my clothing. I helped to remove the creases in her skirt. I went to the study with my arm around Meena's waist. I was relieved that only Gita and Asha had arrived. Meena helped me to sit behind my desk before she left. Gita and Asha arranged chairs for the men. They remained standing until the men arrived within a few minutes.

My steward Mr Harris introduced Tom Anchor whom I knew by sight, Mr Green the cricket club's grounds man, and Mr Singh, the grounds man's assistant. The head gardener wasn't with them. Mr Harris explained that the gardener felt he couldn't add to the discussion about a cricket pitch. It was beyond his expertise.

I introduced Gita and Asha. The four men bowed to them as they curtseyed. We all sat down around my large desk. We were about to start the discussion when two maids brought in the tea and cakes. Gita and Asha poured the tea and handed around the cakes. I could sense that the men were relaxing perhaps because the women were acting as they would expect English women to behave in company.

I asked Gita to explain what she wanted for the cricket club. The men seemed to agree with her ideas. Asha added her thoughts on upstream dams to control the flow of the stream and reduce flooding on the meadow. They seemed less convinced by Asha's ideas.

Mr Green started the discussion.

"Mr Andrews, Gita's idea is sound but we are not convinced that the meadow is the best place. It isn't flat enough for cricket, and if we made it flat either we would have to raise it substantially with massive ground works, or it would flood more than it does now, despite the idea of the dams. If we raised it? The village would flood more often. Mr Anchor agrees with me."

"We set up a makeshift wicket and bowled a few balls," Tom Anchor said, "The grass isn't short enough for a proper pitch but that didn't matter. If I hit the ball towards the road or the church it slowed because of the slope. If I hit it towards the stream it kept rolling until it was stopped by the bushes on the stream's bank. The meadow looks flat but the drop from the road to close to the stream across the size of a full cricket oval is ten feet or more."

"That's far too much for proper cricket," Mr Green said. "It might just be feasible for village cricket with absolute beginners but as soon as they improved they'd find it a nuisance."

"We looked further around the estate," Mr Harris said. "Obviously we wanted the pitch as close to the village as possible. The meadow would have been the closest but is unsuitable."

"You have a field with some woodland the other side of the road from the meadow," Tom Anchor said. "We looked at it. The woodland is beside the road. That would prevent cricket balls reaching the road. In the meadow a strong batsman might hit balls onto the road, into the river, or even through the Church's windows. On the other field any stray balls would either go into another field or get stopped by the trees."

"A pavilion could be built close to the trees," Mr Green said. "The field is almost flat enough as it is. If it were to be ploughed, raked and sowed with good quality grass it would make an excellent pitch, as good as our county ground."

"All it needs, Sir," Mr Singh said, "Is a new access for carriages from the road close to the village. That would be simple."

"I think we ought to look at the field," Gita said.

"Why not?" I said. "Asha? Could you ask for a couple of carriages to be got ready? In about twenty minutes from now?"

"Of course, Anthony," Asha replied.

She left and returned within a few minutes. We were discussing what would need to be done to make a cricket pitch. Apparently a pavilion can be bought as a kit of parts to be erected on site by the suppliers. All I would need to decide is how large a one I should buy. Mr Singh produced a catalogue of cricket pavilions. We crowded around the table to look at it. They also provided village halls and 'tin chapels' -- corrugated iron churches for small non-conformist groups.

"They don't do churches for me," Mr Singh joked. "They're all Christian and I'm Hindu."

Asha looked carefully at him but didn't say a word.

Shortly afterwards all of us climbed into the carriages and drove towards the village. We had to leave the carriages in the meadow before crossing the road. Gita and Asha walked beside me, their arms tucked into mine. They were prepared to support me if I needed it. Mr Harris had brought a folding chair for me. Asha stood beside me as I sat on it while the others walked around the field pacing it out and checking for the level. Gita was very animated and involved in the discussion. I watched with some amusement.

"Anthony," Asha said, "I don't think those temporary buildings would do for a village hall. They need something that will last for a century or more. Cricket? If it becomes popular then a larger pavilion could be built. If it isn't successful a cheap pavilion would last long enough."

"So where would you put a village hall, Asha?" I asked.

"On the higher part of the meadow, close to the road. That part never floods. I'd still like the dams upstream even if the cricket pitch is here. The village needs flood protection even more than cricket."

"So, Asha, we need an engineer for the dams, and an architect for the village hall?"

Asha leant over and kissed my cheek.

"If you can afford them, yes."

"WE can afford them, Asha. Shall I make you responsible for dams and a village hall? And Gita for the cricket pitch and pavilion?"

"Don't tease me, Anthony," Asha said.

"I'm not teasing. I'm serious. YOU will find the engineer. You will find the architect. You will work with them, Mr Harris and the villagers to get the work done. Gita will do the same for the cricket pitch and pavilion, and organise the opening match."

"But..."

"But what, Asha? I know you are women and not English, but all of you have intelligence and education."

"Thanks to you, Anthony. You employed tutors in India for all of us."

"And I'll need tutors soon for the children here. Perhaps I'll get Meena to arrange their education."

"The village has a school, Anthony."

"But it's not very good, Asha."

"Then make it good. Pay for competent teachers, Anthony. But..."

Asha looked around to make sure that the others were out of earshot.

"Anthony? Why are we creating a cricket pitch?"

"You know why, Asha. To prove that I am sane and was sane when I married Sumitra and wrote my will."

"Then you are in danger of making all that useless, Anthony. If you ask women, particularly women from India, to manage the projects... You'll prove you are insane. People won't understand. I know why you want to do it. You trust us. You think we have brains and intelligence. But you're forgetting that this is England. Women are supposed to be in the home raising children and running the household. If Gita and I are commissioning builders, architects and engineers? People will think, no, KNOW, that Anthony is mad. We can't do it. YOU have to be in charge, or at least appear to be in charge. We can help but you have to be seen to be doing it all."

Asha's words shocked me. I sat back in my chair, thinking. She was right. I have to be seen to be running the projects, even if actually I'm not. I can't delegate it to women at least not overtly.

I picked up Asha's hand and kissed it.

"Thank you. You are right. I have to be in charge. Or at least be seen to be in charge. Even if you are actually doing the work my name and person has to be obvious. The reality will have to be secret."

"You underestimate yourself, Anthony. We might be doing the routine work but we'll be asking your advice all the time. We know you. We appreciate your trust in us but we need your direction. We know you are sane even if you startle us from time to time, like marrying Sumitra. That was a shock, a welcome one but a complete surprise. The vicar is still recovering from that list of your children to be christened. He knew you had children by several women. Now he knows that you have twenty-five children by fifteen women. While he might appreciate his fees, he is worried that you are the worst sinner in his parish."

"He may be right, Asha, but I enjoy sinning..."

"We know you do, Anthony. We would like you to have more wives than just Sumitra. It wouldn't be sinning if you married all of us but that isn't possible in England."

"It would be dubious even in India, Asha. It was possible for Christians when we left India but laws were being suggested against it. Hindus are allowed more than one wife, but fifteen would be exceptional."

"I wish... But it is impossible here. We can't all marry you. We are already seen as exotic by the locals. Although we dress as English women whenever we leave your estate, the locals know we wear sarees at home. Even you are seen as unusual, not just for your collection of mistresses. We all need to be accepted as useful to the village. Cricket and the dams will help that as well as establish your sanity."

Asha suddenly looked beyond me.

"Talking about exotic, there's a very unusual gentleman approaching from the road."

I turned around. A large heavy set man dressed in a brown suit with a broad brimmed hat was walking towards us. Underneath the hat I could see he was very tanned.

"I think this might be my nephew Robert. Help me to stand up, discreetly if you can."

Asha stood behind me. Her hand pushing me up was concealed by my body.

The man raised his hat to us.

"Sir? Can you help me? I'm looking for Mr Anthony Andrews."

His accent was certainly not English.

"I am Anthony Andrews, sir. I think you must be my nephew Robert."

"How did you... Yes. I'm Robert Andrews."

"I am pleased to meet you Anthony. This is one of my ladies, Asha."

Anthony executed a creditable bow to Asha. She bobbed a curtsey to him.

"Do you know anything about cricket, Mr Andrews?" Asha asked directly.

"Cricket? What? Why?"

"Asha was far too blunt, Anthony. We are here to try to find a suitable site for a cricket pitch. We don't know enough about cricket so we have invited some people who do know more to help."

"We do play cricket in New South Wales. I don't. I haven't got time, or I hadn't. Sorry, I'm not much help about cricket, Anthony and Asha."

"Never mind, Robert. We've nearly finished here and were going back to the house shortly. Do you have any luggage?"

"Yes. The chaise is waiting on the road. It brought me from the station but the driver told me you were here, not at home."

"Then we'll join you. The others can come back in our carriage. Asha? Could you tell them and come to join us?"

"Of course, Anthony."

"She runs your errands?"

"They all do. I'm not as mobile as I used to be. You'll meet them all tonight, Robert, including my new wife Sumitra."

"I will be delighted, Anthony."

I could see the trace of a grin on his face.

"I'm sure you will be, as they will be to see you. My household is well known."

"So well known that I even knew about it in New South Wales, Anthony."

"That did surprise me when James told me."

"James? He's here?"

"Yes, Robert. He's the young man at the far end of the field talking to the gentleman in the turban. He'll join us at the house."

"With respect, Anthony, I have come to see James. He's my closest living relation except you. I wanted to see what he's like."

"Your closest? You have no children, Robert?"

"Unlike you, Anthony, no. The driver Alfred was very willing to impart all he knew about the Andrews household. Twenty-five children and fifteen wives? I'm impressed." Robert laughed. "Even if officially you have only one wife, the locals seem to think you have fifteen. They're proud of you as a local celebrity. They also seem to like and respect you. Whether that's for your wealth or your household? I think it is both."

"Wealth? I think you are richer than I am, Robert. Is that a gold nugget on your fob chain?"

"Yes. I'm probably richer. I don't know. I have a much larger estate than you and unusually for New South Wales I own it outright including the mineral rights. My father was a very astute businessman as long as you didn't enquire too closely about his dealings. Apart from the land I own the three gold mines on it. Last year we produced more gold than ever."

"Gold as well as land? Land I can understand, but gold? That seems like a licence to coin your own money."

"It is. I can't spend it all. I have no children to leave it to, not even..."

"Bastards?"

"No bastards. Unlike you, I can't father bastards. That's one unfortunate inheritance from my father. I didn't know but he passed on an infection that means I can't have children. Hence my interest in James, my closest young relation."

"You're not?"

"I am. If I find him at all acceptable I want to take him to Australia and make him my heir. What do you think of him?"

"A pleasant young man. My household are very impressed with him. He seems a sensible young gentleman. I think he wants my financial help with something but we haven't discussed it yet. A couple of my women have given me hints. I suspect he might want to purchase an Army commission."

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