It was autumn now, and Mary Parker, after all the events of the summer in Sanditon, felt she was finally able to return to a normal life. Sidney, Arthur and Diana had all returned to London, and while she was very fond of all of them, she was enjoying the chance to have more time to herself. She missed Charlotte, but they wrote regularly, and she had promised herself they would meet up again in the new year.
In the meantime, there were other matters to attend to. Having learnt how bad Tom had been with the finances for his project, she had insisted she been involved with its future administration. Tom had jibed at this, but she had remained firm, knowing that were there any further problems they would be ruined without question.
That morning, Tom had told her about his latest idea, and showed her the plans James Stringer had drawn up for him. She liked what he described, but a warning bell had rung as soon as he had said, “And we just need to make a payment of ...” She had stopped him before he had even named the amount.
“We cannot make any additional payments at this time,” she said firmly. “We are already committed to pay the suppliers for the current work, and the wages are due tomorrow.”
“We can delay paying the suppliers,” Tom said.
“And then we will be blacklisted. And there are few enough suppliers who will deal with us as it is. And do not even think of suggesting we hold back some of the wages.”
“But I’ve promised Stringer we will go ahead.”
“I will go and see Mr Stringer and explain the situation to him.” She stood up before Tom could come up with any further arguments and left the room.
Mary took up her jacket and bonnet and went to find Stringer. She was pleased to be doing so, she needed to speak to him, and this was the perfect excuse.
She found Stringer directing some of the workman regarding the redesigned doorways. “Mr Stringer,” she said, “Could I have a word with you?”
“Of course, Mrs Parker. Shall we walk towards the beach?”
She decided on a direct approach, he would be disappointed that one more of his ideas was being shelved, but there was nothing which could be done about it. “I’m sorry to have to tell you, Mr Stringer, but we are not able to pursue your latest idea. We do not have the available funds to make the necessary down payment.”
“That’s all right, Mrs Parker. I do understand.” Stringer was clearly resigned to one more disappointment.
“Mr Stringer, I quite understand you wishing to stay in Sanditon to oversee the works in memory of your father, but I do feel your talents are wasted here.”
“That’s as maybe, ma’am.”
“If things had not been as they are, you would have been happy to train in London, wouldn’t you?”
“Aye, ma’am. But they are.”
“I have a proposition for you. How would you like to spend the next six months training in London, before returning to Sanditon next Easter? You must be aware that there will be less work done during the winter months, so we could spare you. And I think you probably realise we cannot afford to undertake any new projects, so there would be no need for your drawing skills.”
“You’ll still need a foreman.”
“There are a couple of men who can undertake that role. Not as well as you, but they would be quite competent with the basic tasks.”
“But I cannot take up the offer I refused.”
“I know that. I undertook some enquiries before I made the suggestion, for I did not want you to have false hopes. There is a firm who would be prepared to take you for six months, and then you could return to us. What do you say?”
“I suppose I have nothing to lose.”
“Excellent. Shall we shake on the deal?”
Mary returned to the house, very satisfied at how well the discussion had gone. Tom might raise some objections, because with Stringer away he would need to keep a closer eye on the workmen. On the other hand, if Tom was so employed, he would have less time to come up with impractical, (and expensive), schemes.
It wasn’t until late February that Mary was able to make her promised visit to London. The children had been ill, and then she herself had been unwell, but finally she felt strong enough and sufficiently confident Tom could not cause too much trouble in her absence, to arrange for them to spend a few weeks in the capital before Easter. She had therefore arranged for Charlotte to join her, both to help entertain the children and to provide her with some company.
Early one evening, a few days after they had arrived in London, Mary asked Charlotte if she could return some borrowed cutlery to the dining room. As Mary had hoped, Charlotte left the door open as she did so, and she was able to listen in on the subsequent conversation.
“Oh!” Charlotte said. “Mr Stringer, I hadn’t realised you were in here. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”
“Not at all, Miss Heywood,” Stringer replied. “I am sorry if I am in your way. Mrs Parker asked me to bring some drawings over, as there was someone who she wished to see them.”
“I was only bringing some cutlery in, please don’t trouble yourself on my account.” There was a pause, and Mary presumed Charlotte was looking at the drawings, for she couldn’t hear the sound of drawers being opened and closed.
Then Charlotte said, “These are wonderful. I remember some of your drawings from last summer, but these are even better.”
“I have learnt a lot in my current employment. I’m pleased you like them.”
Mary could hear some indistinct murmurs, and concluded Charlotte was asking Stringer specific questions about the drawings. When she judged she had left the two of them alone for a long enough period that any longer would be completely inappropriate, she joined them.
“What do you think, Charlotte?” she asked. “I like Mr Stringer’s drawings, but you have a much better understanding than I do on such matters.”
“I’m very impressed,” Charlotte replied. “I’m sure Mr Parker will be too.”
“No doubt,” said Mary, a trifle drily. “However, before he sees them, we need to ensure they are practical.”
“I have the costings with me,” Stringer said. He produced a notebook filled with figures.
Mary glanced through them. “Well, much as I would like to proceed with all of them, they will take us over budget. Are there ways you can cut back on the costs?”
“The easiest way would be to adopt a much simpler façade for these sea front houses,” Stringer said.
“Oh, you can’t do that,” Charlotte exclaimed. “They’re so pretty, it would be a shame to lose all that. Presumably some of it could be done with cheaper materials.”
“Yes, that is possible, I suppose. I’d need to think further about it.”
“Perhaps the best thing to do,” Mary suggested, “would be if you were to join us for dinner tomorrow and, if you could come earlier, you and Charlotte could come up with a variety of proposals. I don’t want to present anything to my husband until it is finished and fully costed. Would that be possible, Mr Stringer?”
“Most certainly, Mrs Parker. I look forward to tomorrow.” The smile Stringer gave was clearly directed at Charlotte, rather than Mary, but she was quite happy about that.
After Stringer had left, Mary turned to Charlotte. “I trust you didn’t mind my little subterfuge, my dear.”
“I feel I should do,” Charlotte replied, “but in truth, I have no objection whatsoever. In fact, I’m greatly looking forward to tomorrow.”
Later that evening, Mary wrote to Tom, telling him how happy she was that her plans were working. Tom, reading the letter, said he looked forward to seeing the blueprints. Mary smiled on receiving that letter; some things simply didn’t have a blueprint.