Dublin, Ireland, 1881. Isobel Fitzgerald’s mother, Martha, marries solicitor James Ellison but an unexpected guest overshadows their wedding day. Martha’s father is dying and he is determined to clear his conscience before it is too late. Lewis Greene’s confession ensures the Ellisons’ expectation of a quiet married life is gone and that Isobel’s elder brother, Alfie Stevens, will be the recipient of an unwelcome inheritance.
When a bewildering engagement notice is published in The Irish Times, the name of one of the persons concerned sends Will and Isobel on a race against time across Dublin and forces them to break a promise and reveal a closely guarded secret.
Read An Excerpt From Chapter One…
Dublin, Ireland. Saturday, December 10th, 1881
Will exchanged a smile with Isobel as she came slowly down the stairs from the nursery holding his nephew, John, by the hand. His wife’s matron-of-honour dress was a high-necked emerald green satin creation with a gold-coloured trim and ribbons of the same green were woven into her thick brown hair. By contrast, the three-year-old boy didn’t look at all happy, glaring at his navy blue sailor suit with disgust.
“You look wonderful,” he said all the same and kissed them both.
“I hate my dress,” John declared and Will glanced at the knee-length box-pleated skirt. “Why can’t I wear a frock coat and trousers like you?”
“It’s only for Grandmamma Martha’s wedding,” he assured the boy for what seemed like the umpteenth time. “And she did choose it especially for you. Afterwards, you’ll be back in your short trousers, I promise.”
“But it’s a dress. Everyone will laugh at me.”
“Well, to be precise, it’s a skirt.” Crouching down, Will tilted John’s chin up and met the boy’s dark eyes, a legacy from his Indian mother. “If anyone says something nasty to you, tell them Roman soldiers wore what could be described as skirts and no-one dared to laugh at them. Isn’t that right, Isobel?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Are Ben and Belle fed and asleep?” he asked, mentioning the twins in the hope they would take the boy’s mind off his ‘dress’. “Good,” he replied as John nodded. “Shall, we go? We can’t keep Grandmamma Martha waiting on her special day.” Picking the boy up, they went downstairs to the hall where Zaineb, one of their house-parlourmaids, smiled at John before opening the front door for them. “Thank you, Zaineb,” he said as they left the house. “See you later.”
It was a chilly morning but, thankfully, there were no signs of rain and they walked around the private railed-off Fitzwilliam Square garden to number 55 – home to Isobel’s mother and brother. Two carriages were waiting outside and Alfie Stevens gave them a grin from the front door as they approached.
“The Fitzgeralds – good morning. Isobel, I think our darling mother is going to be late. May has been sent to the servants’ hall for something or other twice since you left.”
“Everything was fine fifteen minutes ago,” Isobel muttered, shaking her head. “I’ll go and hurry Mother up.”
She went inside and Alfie shrugged his shoulders as he came down the steps to the pavement.
“It’s hired,” he explained, gesturing to his frock coat. “And I think I’m the first man to have worn it. You both look very smart.”
“Thank you.” Will peered at his own new frock coat and silver-grey cravat. “But John doesn’t like his outfit, it was all Isobel and I could do to persuade him to wear the ‘dress’,” he told Alfie in a low voice.
“It’s only for today,” Alfie reminded the boy. “After the wedding, I’ll be back in my far more comfortable morning coat and you’ll be back in your short trousers. Yes?”
“Yes,” John replied firmly and Alfie gave him another grin.
Fifteen minutes passed with Will and Alfie glancing impatiently at each other and their pocket watches until Isobel and her mother came down the stairs to the hall. Mrs Henderson’s wedding dress was identical to Isobel’s, only that it was gold-coloured satin with an emerald green trim and ribbons of the same gold were woven into her greying brown hair. She paused to lift a bouquet of gold and emerald satin roses from the hall table before continuing on out of the house with Isobel following her. Alfie assisted his mother into the first carriage, gave Will a quick wave then climbed in after her.
Relieved they weren’t going to be excessively late, Will helped Isobel and John into the second carriage. He got in and lifted the boy onto his lap so John could see out of the window and the short procession left Fitzwilliam Square.
* * *
Isobel and young John took their places behind her mother and Alfie at the door to St Peter’s Church on Aungier Street. Will hurried inside and, less than a minute later, the wedding march began. Almost halfway up the right-hand aisle, an elderly man with a snow-white beard and hair and wearing small round spectacles caught her attention. His black woollen overcoat was far too big for him and a long white scarf was wound around his neck. He was seated twisted around in his pew while everyone else was standing to view the bridal party so Isobel couldn’t help but stare until the penny dropped and his eyes also widened in recognition as she passed him. Nearing the chancel steps, John tried to pull his hand away from hers and she looked down at the boy, realising she had been squeezing it tightly.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, rubbing his fingers with her thumb.
Taking the bouquet from her mother, she and John sat beside Will in the front pew as the ceremony began. Will lifted John onto his lap so the boy had a clear view of his Grandmamma Martha and soon-to-be Grandpapa James before clasping her hand.
“What is it?” he whispered anxiously during the first hymn. “You’re both freezing and on edge.”
“I’ve just seen Mr Greene – Mother’s father,” she replied and his jaw dropped.
“Here in the church?” He threw an incredulous glance behind them. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. Mother has only one photograph of her parents and her father has aged, of course, but it’s definitely him. He is sitting behind us in this central block of pews about halfway down the church and is wearing a white scarf. I don’t know why he’s here – he and my grandmother broke off all contact with Mother when she ran away from home to marry Father against their wishes.”
“What do you want to do?” he asked and she gave a helpless little shrug.
“I don’t know, because Mother and James are going to greet everyone at the door and I’m dreading a scene.”
He nodded as the hymn ended and they sat down. She did her best to enjoy the service but it was all she could do not to push past Will and John, run down the aisle and drag her grandfather out of the church. Alfie gave their mother away and joined them in their pew and, as the wedding concluded, she reached over and touched his arm.
“John would like to walk out of the church with you,” she said and both Alfie and the boy smiled. “And Will and I shall walk out together, too.”
Standing behind the new Mr and Mrs Ellison with Alfie and John bringing up the rear, they proceeded down the left-hand aisle. Spotting her grandfather through a sea of faces, Isobel noted how his eyes were fixed only on his daughter and that, thankfully, she had not seen him yet.
They greeted the happy couple at the church door, Isobel kissing them on both cheeks so she could quickly whisper in James’ ear;
“Lewis Greene – Mother’s father – is in the church. He is wearing a black overcoat and a white scarf wound around his neck.”
Her step-father’s brown eyes bulged in alarm but he nodded and she and Will moved on towards the gates to Aungier Street.
“Isobel?” Hearing Alfie’s fierce whisper, they both turned. “What on earth is the matter?” he demanded, leading John towards them. “You and Will were whispering through every hymn and now you’ve told James something that’s made him go as white as a sheet and—” He broke off and gasped as he recognised the elderly man emerging from the church clutching a top hat and a walking cane.
Mrs Ellison’s eyes widened in first disbelief and then shock before she forced a smile and greeted her father warmly and no different than anyone else. James shook his father-in-law’s hand then Mr Greene walked on and, to Isobel’s consternation, made a beeline for the four of them.
“You must be Isobel,” he said, leaning on his cane and looking her up and down. “You know exactly who I am.”
“I do. What do you want?”
One of her grandfather’s eyebrows rose at her bluntness but he didn’t respond and turned to Alfie.
“And you must be Alfred?”
“Yes, I am, but everyone calls me Alfie.”
“And who is this?” Her grandfather nodded to John, who was still clutching Alfie’s hand. The boy’s dark eyes were darting from Alfie to her and to Will, clearly sensing the animosity and suspicion amongst the three of them towards the stranger. “Your son?”
“No, my nephew, John Fitzgerald,” Will replied, holding out a hand. “I am Isobel’s husband, Dr Will Fitzgerald.”
“I see,” Mr Greene replied but made no attempt to shake Will’s hand.
“You haven’t answered my question,” Isobel persisted as Will picked John up. “What do you want?”
“I would prefer not to discuss the matter here in front of all and sundry.”
All and sundry? It was just as well the other members of the congregation were paying them little attention.
“Well,” she replied stiffly. “I am afraid it is here or not at all.”
Her grandfather’s eyebrow rose again. “I am dying, Isobel,” he said with equal bluntness and she heard Alfie gasp again. “And I wish to make my peace with your mother and get to know my new son-in-law and you and your brother before I die.”
This time, Isobel looked him up and down. Mr Greene was leaning heavily on his walking cane, beginning to wheeze and she hoped he had a cab waiting for him.
“Mother and James leave for a week’s honeymoon in London late this afternoon. It is bad enough you turn up at their wedding without warning but you will not break such news to Mother until she returns to Dublin. Is that understood?” she insisted and her grandfather exhaled a phlegmy laugh.
“I learned of your mother’s wedding purely by chance, I can assure you. But I understand.”
“Where are you staying? The Shelbourne Hotel?”
“Your grandmother and I have rented a house on Fitzwilliam Square,” he replied and Isobel’s heart sank. “Number 7.”
“I live on Fuzwillan Square with Will and Isobel,” John announced. “So does Grandmamma Martha. And Grandpapa James will live there, too.”
Her grandfather glanced at the boy in surprise before looking up at Will plainly of the opinion that children should be seen and not heard. “This boy lives with you, Dr Fitzgerald?”
“John is my late brother’s son,” Will explained. “He lives with Isobel and I and Ben and Belle.”
“Ben and Belle?” his grandfather-in-law inquired with a frown.
“Our twin son and daughter,” Isobel informed him. “Your great-grandchildren.”
“I have great-grandchildren.” Mr Greene produced another phlegm-filled laugh. “Your mother was a twin.”
“So I was told. Please do not upset her further on her wedding day – please go – and we shall call on you tomorrow.”
“Until tomorrow, then.” Putting on his top hat, her grandfather walked away and was soon lost in the crowd which had spilled out onto the pavement.
“Isobel?” A hand grabbed her arm from behind and she turned to face her mother. “Where is he? Where is my father?”
“I’m afraid he had to leave.”
“Had to leave?” her mother echoed incredulously and James turned briefly to the street. “Whatever was he doing here?”
“He and Grandmother live in Dublin now.”
“Where?” James asked.
“He did not say,” she lied.
“Oh, Isobel, I can hardly believe it.” Her mother fought back tears. “I thought I would never see my father again.”
“Never say never,” Isobel replied with a smile. “Congratulations again, Mother. And you, too, James.”
“Thank you, Isobel,” he replied and gestured to the gates. “I think we should make our way to our carriages.”
“I agree,” Will added. “It is far too cold to stand about here.”
As soon as they returned to number 55, Mrs Ellison insisted on speaking to her in private and, reluctantly, Isobel followed her mother into the morning room. Closing the door, she looked at the hearth. A fire had been set that morning but not lit and the room felt unusually cool.
“You may now tell me the truth,” Mrs Ellison began. “Where are my father and mother living?”
Isobel grimaced. Was she so bad a liar these days? “I don’t—”
“The truth, Isobel,” her mother interrupted crisply.
“They have rented a house here on the square – number 7,” she said and Mrs Ellison went straight to the window and looked out at the street. “And you will call on them when you return from London.”
“No. I want them both here – now.”
“Mother, no,” she begged. “You have been looking forward to this day for such a long time don’t allow them to ruin it.”
“They are my parents,” Mrs Ellison replied, her voice rising.
“The same parents who cut you off when you married Father and who are now suddenly here in Dublin for your marriage to a gentleman they approve of.”
That made her mother flinch and Isobel hoped she hadn’t gone too far.
“I want them both here – now,” Mrs Ellison repeated quietly, walking to the rope and ringing for a servant.
“Very well.” Isobel reached for the doorknob.
“And I want you, Alfie, James and Will here when they arrive.”
Letting her hand drop to her side, Isobel walked to the window turning momentarily to the door as the butler came in then watched a ginger cat squeeze between the railings surrounding the Fitzwilliam Square gardens before disappearing from view.
“You rang, Mrs Ellison.”
“Gorman, please, send someone to number 7 and ask that Mr and Mrs Greene join Mr and Mrs Ellison for luncheon and to meet their families. Oh, and this means there will be two extra for luncheon.”
“Yes, Mrs Ellison.”
“And ask my husband, son and son-in-law to join myself and my daughter here.”
“Yes, Mrs Ellison.”
The butler left the room and Isobel pulled a face, only turning around again when the door opened and James, Alfie and Will came in.
“I have sent for my parents,” Mrs Ellison announced and Isobel met Will’s brown eyes for a moment. “And, no, Isobel does not approve of my decision but I want them both here on my wedding day.”
There was no response, Mrs Ellison gave a little shrug and the five of them waited in a tense silence until voices were heard in the hall and the butler came into the room.
“Mr Greene,” Gorman announced, the elderly gentleman walked in and Isobel peered behind him. Where was his wife? Why wasn’t she here? And why hadn’t she accompanied her husband to St Peter’s Church?
“Martha.” Mr Greene went to his daughter reaching out his hands. “Oh, let me look at you.” Clasping her hands, he stood back with a smile. “Oh, how I have missed you.”
Isobel clenched her fists and banged them against her thighs in frustration as her mother burst into tears. How could she be so forgiving?
“And I have missed you.” Her mother smiled through her tears. “Oh, Father…” Holding him to her, the two cried unashamedly.
Isobel glanced at Will who returned a helpless expression while Alfie began to shuffle uncomfortably and James examined his hands.
When the two finally stopped sobbing, Mrs Ellison wiped her tears away with her fingers and looked over her father’s shoulder.
“I must introduce you to my family, Father. This is James Ellison – my husband.”
James joined them and greeted his new and unexpected father-in-law with admirable calm politeness.
“Alfie?” his mother called and he shuffled forward. “My son, Alfie, is a medical student at Trinity College.”
“A budding doctor, eh?” his grandfather commented.
“I have wanted to be nothing else,” he replied.
“And this is my daughter, Isobel, and her husband, Will,” her mother continued and she braced herself as Will took her hand, led her to them and her grandfather inclined his head politely.
“Your concern for your mother is commendable, Isobel.”
“I do not wish to see my mother upset – especially on today of all days.”
“But I am not upset,” her mother protested with an almost hysterical laugh which made her cringe. “I am absolutely delighted to have my father here today.”
“Where is Grandmother?” she asked on behalf of them all and he gave her a little smile, no doubt having expected her question.
“Resting,” he answered simply and she didn’t believe him for a second.
Quickly realising she wasn’t going to reply, her mother gestured to Will.
“This is my son-in-law, Dr Will Fitzgerald.”
“Are you a Dublin man?” Mr Greene inquired.
“Yes, I am,” Will replied. “I was born and brought up on Merrion Square.”
“Isobel and Will have twins – a boy and a girl – Ben and Belle – who are five months old,” Mrs Ellison went on. “And they are raising Will’s nephew, John, who is almost four.”
“I am a great-grandfather.” Mr Greene smiled and shook his head. “Good gracious me. I may be as old as the century, but this news makes me feel utterly antiquated.”
“I think we should go upstairs and introduce Mr Greene to our guests,” James suggested and his wife nodded.
“And luncheon will be served soon.”
They went up the stairs to the pleasantly warm drawing room where Mrs Ellison introduced her father – wheezing after the climb – to the guests. Will’s mother, in particular, was astonished, Sarah having assumed her friend’s parents were both long dead.
“You don’t seem at all happy to finally meet your grandfather, Isobel,” Will’s father commented and she sighed, taking his arm and leading him to a relatively quiet corner.
“My grandparents cut Mother off when she ran away from home to marry my father just days after her twenty-first birthday and yet here they both are in Dublin – twenty-five years later.”
“Your grandfather has the pallor and laboured breathing of a very ill man,” he said as they observed Mr Greene now leaning heavily on her mother’s arm and she nodded.
“Grandfather is dying and my mother does not know – and will not know – until she and James return from London.”
“Of course. They live in Co Mayo, don’t they?”
“They did, but not anymore, apparently. They are renting number 7.”
“Here on Fitzwilliam Square?” John Fitzgerald’s eyebrows shot up.
“Yes. I think their move to Dublin and my grandfather’s ‘sudden’ appearance at the church were very carefully planned, despite his words to the contrary,” she said as Will came to them.
“James seems rather stunned, what do you think of all this?” his father asked.
“Poor James is walking on eggshells,” Will replied. “He did not expect to acquire parents-in-law. I agree with Isobel that Mr Greene’s ‘sudden’ appearance has taken careful planning, so I am rather… wary.”
“Well, do not agree to be your grandfather-in-law’s doctor whatever you do.”
Will shot his father a sharp look. “I’m sure Mr Greene already has a doctor.”
“My namesake didn’t look too happy to be wearing a skirt.” John swiftly changed the subject.
“He wasn’t happy,” Will confirmed. “He hated his ‘dress’. But when I left him at number 30 with Zaineb, he went running up the stairs ahead of her for his short trousers immediately.”
A quarter of an hour later, they all sat down to the wedding luncheon – a place setting for Mrs Greene having been added and then quickly taken away. Isobel glanced at Will’s estranged parents, placed opposite each other at the huge dining table. Living separately – although under the same roof at number 67 Merrion Square – John and Sarah had behaved impeccably at Ben, Belle and young John’s joint christenings and could put on a show of togetherness when required.
Isobel was seated between John and one of James’ brothers and, although she spoke politely with both men, she couldn’t rid herself of the shock and anger of her grandfather’s unexpected arrival. She had rarely thought of either her paternal or maternal grandparents over the years. Her father’s parents had both died long before Alfie and she were born and she had never expected to meet her mother’s father and mother.
Mr and Mrs Ellison were to leave by cab at five o’clock. It would take them to the North Wall Quay passenger terminus and the boat to Holyhead in Wales. From there, they would travel to London by train. Isobel went upstairs with her mother and helped her to put on an exquisite three-quarter length ‘going away’ coat and hat made from the same gold and emerald green satin as the wedding dress.
“Promise me one thing,” Mrs Ellison said as Isobel opened the bedroom door. “Promise me you won’t row with your grandfather while James and I are in London. I know you are not at all happy at his rather sudden appearance.”
“I cannot promise you that, Mother,” she replied truthfully.
“In that case, I would like you to keep away from him – and your grandmother.”
Isobel’s jaw dropped. “Keep away?”
“Yes, Isobel, keep away. Yes, they hurt me deeply – cutting me off when I married your father – and I appreciate your wish to protect me from any further distress. But until I have the opportunity to sit down with them and determine whether their move to Dublin is temporary or permanent and what either could mean for us all, I would like you to keep away from them – please?”
Isobel gave a little shrug. “I can only promise you that I shall not call on them. But if they call on me…” She tailed off intentionally and her mother sighed but nodded.
“Yes, it is natural that they would wish to see their great-grandchildren.”
Is it, Isobel wondered. Today was the first occasion Mr Greene had set eyes on his grandchildren, never mind his great-grandchildren, even though he has no doubt known of us all and where we live for quite some time.
“And now it is time for you to go,” she said, hugging and kissing her mother. “Have a lovely time in London.”
They went downstairs and she kissed James goodbye. He smiled before giving her a firm nod, silently telling her he would ensure his new wife enjoyed her honeymoon.
The wedding guests stood on the steps of number 55 waving the cab off and as it left the square Mr Greene turned to her.
“I shall take my leave now, too.”
“Goodbye,” Isobel said simply and her grandfather’s eyebrows rose, no doubt having expected something a little more acerbic. Turning away, she went back into the hall with Will following her. “My grandfather is returning to number 7,” she informed Gorman who lifted Mr Greene’s overcoat down from the stand. “And I hope the other guests leave soon as well,” she added to Will. “Because I don’t know for how long I can remain polite and make inane small talk.”
It took two hours for the last guests to leave and as soon as Will closed the drawing room door, Isobel exploded – throwing her hands up into the air.
“Isobel.” Will clasped her hands and kissed them. “Let’s try and remain calm – we need to remain calm. Alfie, tell me what you know about your grandparents while I pour us a drink.”
“Well,” Alfie began, rubbing his forehead as Will went to the drinks tray. “They live – or lived – at Greene Hall in Co Mayo – not far from Westport. Their estate borders the Marquess of Sligo’s estate.”
“Their estate?” Will echoed, reaching for one of the decanters. “How much land do they have?”
“A lot,” Isobel replied, trying to recall what she had been told over the years. “About ten thousand acres. Some of it is peat bog and mountain and only fit for sheep, but there is also some good land. The house is large, too, according to what Mother used to say. But I’ve never seen a painting or a photograph of it, so I don’t know how accurate her description is. Mother took one photograph of her parents with her when she ran away to marry Father, that is all.”
“And they cut your mother off completely?” Will asked her while pouring the drinks. “There was no secret correspondence?”
“Not as far as I know. Do you know any different, Alfie?” she asked and he made a helpless gesture with his hands. “What about when Father died?”
“When Father died, Mother and I both decided to move to Dublin more or less straight away. If there were any letters, I knew nothing of them.”
Will passed her a glass of brandy and Alfie one of whiskey before holding up his own whiskey glass.
“Well, apart from your grandfather appearing, the day was very pleasant. Long life and happiness to the Ellisons.”
They touched glasses and drank.
“Today would have been an emotional one for your mother even if your grandfather hadn’t turned up at the church,” he continued. “So, let’s see what her state of mind is when she returns from London.”
“Hopefully, James will be able to talk some sense into her,” she added as the door opened and Gorman came in.
“Mr Greene has called and is asking to speak to Mr Stevens and Mrs Fitzgerald.”
“What does he want now?” Isobel muttered, rolling her eyes.
“Mr Greene needs to sit down, Dr Fitzgerald,” the butler added. “He is puffing and panting rather alarmingly.”
Will quickly put his glass on the mantelpiece, her glass and Alfie’s joined it and they went downstairs to the hall. Her grandfather was standing at the front door, leaning heavily on his walking cane and wheezing. Taking Mr Greene’s arm, Will guided him into the morning room and sat him down on the sofa while Alfie and Gorman lit the gas lamps.
“Breathe as slowly and deeply as you can,” Will instructed as she closed the door.
Mr Greene exhaled a phlegm-filled laugh. “That is easier said than done.”
“Would you like whiskey, sherry or brandy?” Isobel asked and he glanced up at her in surprise.
“Brandy. Thank you.”
She nodded and went to the decanters. Returning with a large glass of brandy, she passed it to him but his hand shook and Will had to grab the glass before it fell onto the rug. With Will holding the glass, the elderly man took a sip and sat back, pulling a handkerchief from his overcoat pocket and mopping his forehead.
“I don’t like sherry,” he announced. “I can tolerate a single malt whiskey, but I much prefer brandy.”
She almost smiled, as she had exactly the same taste in alcohol. Who knows what else she had in common with him.
“Why come to Dublin?” she asked and the butler discreetly left the room. “Why turn up unannounced at Mother’s wedding? Why did Grandmother not attend the wedding with you? Why did she not attend the wedding luncheon? Why is she not here with you now?”
“Because, Isobel,” he said, taking the glass from Will. “I am about to tell you something your grandmother wishes to keep secret.”
“Well?” she prompted irritably as he enjoyed another sip of brandy and handed the glass back to Will.
“It was wholly my idea to attend your mother’s wedding,” he told her. “Your grandmother wished to stay away but I wanted to see my daughter marry so I insisted I attend, even though it went against my doctor’s strict advice. I have chronic lung disease,” he added, with a glance towards both Will and Alfie. “I am dying, and there are many things I have done over the course of my life I want to try and put right before it is too late. I wish to get to know my darling daughter again. I wish to get to know my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. But I also have a son and it is my dearest wish that I see him once more before I die.”
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Cover photo credit: Wilhelm Roentgen (1845-1923), German physicist, received the first Nobel Prize for Physics, in 1901, for his discovery of X-rays in 1895: Everett Historical/Shutterstock.com and Portrait of a man in a top hat and morning suit holding a cane: Everett Historical/Shutterstock.com
Cover photo credit: Florence Court, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland: phb.cz/Depositphotos.com