The Westmere Legacy
The Westmere Legacy
“I shall go mad if I have to stay here a day longer,” Bella cried.
“Then you shan’t.” Robert took a letter from his pocket and handed it to her. “I believe this is an invitation to spend some time with Mama. She has sent me with the coach to fetch you.”
“Oh, Robert, you are an angel!” She flung her arms about his neck and kissed him joyously on each check, as a child might have done. He raised his hands halfway to his shoulders and then, not knowing what to do with them, dropped them again and stood stiffly to attention.
Suddenly aware of his lack of response, she stood back, her face scarlet. “Oh, I am sorry….”
He smiled and stroked her cheek with the back of one finger. “Impulsive as always, my dear, but you must remember that we are no longer childhood playmates. Society is likely to be shocked by such forwardness.”
The Westmere Legacy Mary Nichols
Born in Singapore, Mary Nichols came to England when she was three, and has spent most of her life in different parts of East Anglia. She has been a radiographer, school secretary, information officer and industrial editor, as well as a writer. She has three grown children and four grandchildren.
‘Sylvester!’ William Huntley, second Earl of Westmere, could be heard bellowing as far away as the kitchens, where Bella was speaking to Cook about the day’s menus. ‘Sylvester! Damn your eyes, man! I want you here.’
‘Oh, dear, his gout must be plaguing him again,’ Bella said. ‘Where can Sylvester be?’
There was the sound of hurrying footsteps on the landing above them and then silence. A few minutes later a tall gangly individual in a suit of black clothes and thinning hair of indeterminate colour appeared in the doorway with a large jug which he handed to Daisy, the kitchen maid, to fill with hot water. ‘He is determined on dressing and coming downstairs,’ he said.
‘But he hasn’t had his breakfast.’
‘He says he will have it in the breakfast parlour in half an hour.’
‘Oh, lor,’ Daisy said, filling the jug with hot water from a huge kettle on the stove and giving it back to him. ‘There’s no fire in there.’
‘Then you’d better put one there quick sharp.’
‘And who’s going to help me cook breakfast if the girl disappears, making fires?’ Cook demanded. ‘Can’t you persuade him to have his breakfast in his room like he always does? I can’t think why he should suddenly decide to come downstairs for it—it’s years since he did that.’
‘He says he’s made a decision and he’s going to set it in train today.’
‘Oh, and what might that be?’
The valet shrugged his bony shoulders. ‘How should I know?’
‘You’re privy to most things where he’s concerned. I’ll wager he’s told you.’
‘He has not and if he had, I wouldn’t tell you, madam. I’m off before he starts yelling again.’
‘Gout he might have, but it hasn’t affected his voice,’ Cook said, as they heard his lordship shouting again.
‘No, but it does give him a great deal of pain,’ Bella put in mildly, as the valet scuttled from the room with the hot water. ‘He will feel better directly when Sylvester has given him his wash and shave and bound up his poor foot. Daisy, go and light that fire. I will help Cook with breakfast.’
The thirteen-year-old Daisy picked up a basket of wood, an old newspaper and a tinder box and left the kitchen. Bella found an apron in a drawer and rolled up the sleeves of her dress to help prepare the household’s breakfasts. It was not an arduous task because although the Earl was hardly impecunious, he was very careful, some said mean, and kept no more staff than was necessary for his own comfort and the smooth running of the house and estate.
Indoors, there was only Sylvester Carpenter his valet, Sam Jolliffe the butler, Martha Tooke, housekeeper-cum-cook, Daisy the kitchen maid, a laundrywoman and two women who did not live in but came in from the village every day to make sure the east wing of the great mansion, which was the only part of it they used, was kept clean. It was not a convenient house, having the kitchens and pantries on the opposite side of the great hall to the reception rooms, but there were smaller, cosier parlours nearer to the hub of the great house, which were used now there were only three in residence.
This level of indoor staffing was considered adequate for a household that consisted of the Earl and Bella, and Ellen Battersby, Bella’s maid and companion. The elderly Miss Battersby was away, visiting her sister who was ill, and Bella missed her.
Isabella, known to everyone as Bella, was the Earl’s granddaughter, the only child of his son, Charles. She was seventeen years old and had lived at Westmere all her life. She did not remember her mother except as a rather ephemeral being who had always smelled nice and looked beautiful. She had died of fever after giving birth to a son who had survived her by only two days.
Bella’s memories of her father were rather different. His smells were of tobacco and brandy, especially the brandy. Sometimes he had been exceptionally jovial and sometimes morose to the point of silence for hours, even days, on end. He had also had a violent temper, which had often led her grandfather to sigh heavily and declaim, ‘I don’t know where he gets it from, I am sure. I am the mildest of men myself.’ Her father had died in 1805 when Bella had been six, and the event had hardly registered on her young mind except that she had suddenly found herself free of fear.
As for her grandfather, the Earl, he did have a temper, whatever he said to the contrary, but, unlike her father, he was never harsh with her. He had once been a very handsome man, tall and upright, with thick wavy hair and brown eyes beneath the finely arched brows which were the mark of nearly every male Huntley. He was old now, of course. Seventy-nine was a great age, and the hair, though still thick, was pure white, the eyes more often than not clouded with pain. He was always talking about ‘kicking the bucket’, which Bella found distressing.
Sometimes he would talk nostalgically of the times when he and his brother, John, had been boys and Westmere had simply been a bump in the fens, above the level of the fields that surrounded it, which had been frequently flooded in winter. It was hard to imagine that now because much of the marshy ground of the fens had been drained and cultivated.
It was the death of his brother which had made him more crabby than usual, she decided. John had been the younger by three years and it must have made the Earl aware of his own mortality. ‘Who would have guessed I would outlive him?’ he had said, on hearing the news. ‘He never had a day’s illness in his life while I am plagued by gout and a bad heart, have been for years.’
Sir John Huntley, baronet, had died suddenly in his sleep at his home, Palgrave Manor in the county of Essex, just as the church bells had been pealing in the new year of 1816. He had outlived his wife and only son, just as the Earl had done, but was survived by two widowed daughters, a granddaughter and four grandsons. Bella had been aware of undercurrents of feeling at the funeral they had attended two months before, though she could not exactly put her finger on why that should have been.
The church had been full, everyone dressed in deepest mourning, and during the committal they had obviously been distressed, but afterwards, when friends and distant relations had departed and close family had congregated at Palgrave Manor for refreshments and the reading of the will, there had been a certain tension and whispered comments about the inheritance.
‘But I could not see there should be any dissent about it,’ Bella said to her grandfather on the return journey from Palgrave to Westmere. ‘I thought Sir John disposed of everything very properly. Edward has the title and the estate, which is surely as it should be, but he did not neglect the others. An annuity for the other three men and generous gifts to the ladies. Everyone was remembered, even the servants.’
It was a very uncomfortable journey with the roads deep in snow and the poor horses struggling to pull the heavy family coach through the drifts. And though they had hot bricks at their feet and warm rugs wrapped about their knees, Bella was still numb with cold and was quite sure her grandfather felt it even more than she did. It worried her that he had insisted on making the journey at all. He would have been excused his absence in the circumstances, she was sure.
‘Of course they were,’ the Earl growled. ‘It’s not John’s estate they are concerned with, but mine.’
‘Yours?’ she queried in surprise.
‘I have no son living and no grandsons. My brother was my heir. Now he is gone they are gathering like a crowd of vultures, waiting for me to stick my spoon in the wall, too. Got their eyes on my blunt, not to mention the title.’
‘Oh, Grandpapa, I’m sure not,’ Bella said, unwilling to believe any of her four second cousins were so mercenary. ‘They are concerned for your health, that is all.’
‘Oh, indeed they are,’ he said with a chuckle. ‘I’ve a good mind to live for ever to confound them.’
‘I hope you may, Grandpapa.’
‘Dear child, I do believe you are the only one who means that.’
And then he abruptly changed the subject, looking out of the coach at the bleak white landscape and saying how he would be glad when spring arrived and he could see the new lambs frolicking in the fields—the home farm had a large flock of sheep—and from that she deduced he was not expecting to die quite yet.
He did not mention it again and they resumed their usual humdrum routine. Every day he had his breakfast in his room and then followed a leisurely toilet, after which he made his way down to the little parlour and then, if he felt well enough, took a gentle hack round the estate and spoke to his steward about the work that needed doing. Sometimes she accompanied him on his rides or they would go out in the carriage together to visit neighbours. They would have dinner at three and supper at seven and he would retire early to his room.
Every Sunday morning, they went to the church in the village of Westmere, after which the Earl would stop and make some caustic comment to the parson about the sermon or the text and they would return home in time for an early dinner.
Apart from discussing the daily menus with Martha, Bella’s only other duties were to write letters for her grandfather and read to him from The Morning Post and The Times which were sent down by mail from London every day. He also subscribed to Cobbett’s Political Register, which often had him exploding with indignation. She wondered why he continued to require her to read it aloud if the author’s radical views annoyed him so much. ‘Tuppeny trash,’ he called it, but, then, the Earl would disagree with almost everyone, just for love of an argument.
When not attending to her grandfather, Bella occupied her time with walks, charitable works, sewing and writing her journal. Not that she had a great deal to commit to paper, but she liked to observe people and their foibles and watch nature unfold, year by year, from winter to spring and into summer and autumn, to record the first snowdrop, the first cuckoo, the day the harvest began and the day the meres froze over and everyone took to their skates. She wrote about little domestic problems and news of the village—who had been taken to bed with child, who had died, which young man was courting which of the village girls.
She read the Ladies’ Monthly Museum and subscribed to a lending library so that she could read the latest novels. She had even begun to write one of her own, full of unrequited love, mystery, duels and dangerous adventures. It helped to relieve the boredom of a life that was mundane to say the least. She often longed for something exciting to happen to liven it up. And now it looked as though it might. Something was in the air. But what?
She did not have long to wait. As soon as they had finished their breakfast, the Earl stood up, pushing Sylvester aside when he ran to help him. ‘Leave me, man, I am not slipping my wind yet.’ Then he turned to Bella. ‘Come with me, I want some letters written.’
She followed him to the library, where he sank into an armchair beside the fire. ‘You don’t look quite the thing, Grandpapa. Are you sure you want to do this today?’ she asked. Spring was a very long time coming this year and the dismal days seemed to make him more and more tired.
‘Yes, been putting it off too long as it is.’
‘Very well, but you must stop if it becomes too much for you.’
‘Will you cease fussing, child, and fetch out the writing things? I want four letters written.’
‘Four?’ she queried in surprise as she seated herself at his big leather-topped desk and took notepaper and pens from the drawer.
‘Yes, one to each of my great-nephews. You know their directions.’
‘Yes.’ She dipped a pen in the ink and waited while he assembled his thoughts.
‘Dear whichever of them you start with,’ he began. ‘It doesn’t matter, they’re all the same. You are requested and required to attend me at Westmere Hall on Thursday the 20th day of March at two in the afternoon…’
‘Grandpapa, is that not a little abrupt?’ Bella ventured. ‘And very short notice. The twentieth is only three days away.’
He laughed. ‘They will all come running with their tongues hanging out—you see.’
‘Why do you want to see them all at once? It will exhaust you.’
‘It will be far less tiring than telling them one at a time. And besides, they won’t be able to argue among themselves about what I said to each if they hear it together.’
‘Hear what, Grandpapa?’
‘But surely that happens…’ She stopped in dismay. ‘Oh, please, do not tell me you are unwell.’
‘I am old, Bella, and I have been thinking that I ought to make my peace with the past and ensure the future. Your future.’
‘Mine?’ she queried. It had never entered her head to wonder what would befall her after her grandfather died. She supposed, if it happened before she was married, he would leave her in the care of whoever succeeded, but until recently she had not given a thought to who that might be. Louis was the oldest of the great-nephews, but he was the son of a daughter. On the other hand, Edward was the elder son of a son and he bore the family name of Huntley, which Louis did not. She had no idea how these things were managed, but she could very well see quarrels ahead. No doubt her grandfather had seen them, too, and this was his way of dealing with them. But where did James, also on the distaff side, and Robert, Edward’s younger brother, fit into it?
They were all honourable men and would make sure she had a roof over her head and did not starve. Suddenly she was filled with apprehension. Her grandfather must be having doubts about that or he would not be writing to them. She found herself looking at him, her heart thumping, the letters unfinished.
‘Yes, my dear. You know when I am called to account, I do not want to be found wanting as far as you are concerned. You are a female and a very young and comely one.’ He paused to scrutinise her from top to toe as if he had not looked at her properly for a long time. He saw large hazel eyes set in an oval face surrounded by dark ringlets, a proud neck, sloping shoulders and a trim figure dressed in a light green merino wool gown. She was taller and thinner than he would have liked, but he supposed she would fill out as she matured. He favoured women with a little more meat on them. ‘And marriageable. You will need advice and instruction…’
‘There is Miss Battersby, Grandpapa.’
‘Pah! Her head is full of romantic notions. She would marry you off to the first young gallant with a ready smile and a twinkling eye.’
‘She is not such a fribble and neither am I.’
‘Perhaps not. But I am not going to take the gamble. I want to see you married before I go.’ He paused. ‘You know, being a female, you cannot inherit Westmere directly?’
‘Yes, Grandpapa, and although I would rather not think about it, I am sure you will make provision for me. I am in no hurry to marry.’
‘You may not be, but I am. That is why I have sent for those four. You shall marry one of them.’
‘Grandfather!’ She was shocked to the core. ‘You are surely not going to instruct one of them to wed me?’
‘No. The choice will be yours.’
The conversation was becoming more and more bizarre and her senses were reeling. She leaned back in her chair, the letter-writing forgotten. She could not imagine herself married to any one them. Although they were not first cousins, she had always looked on the young men as kinsmen, part of the family who came and went and sometimes stopped to chuck her under the chin and ask her how she did. The idea of being married to any one of them was past imagining.
‘Grandpapa,’ she said, trying to control the quaver in her voice. ‘They are so much older than I and men of the world. I am persuaded not one of them will want me for a wife.’ Indeed, she hoped and prayed that was the case.
‘Oh, indeed, they will. I guarantee they will all be paying you fulsome compliments and begging you for your hand inside of an hour, if not before.’ He chuckled suddenly. ‘The one who comes up to the mark shall be my heir.’
‘Grandfather!’ She was horrified. ‘I am to be bartered for a legacy?’
‘Pity you weren’t a boy,’ he said, ignoring her outburst. ‘You’d have inherited right and tight and no questions asked. I can leave the blunt to you, but where’s the sense in that? You couldn’t have the managing of it. It has to go to your husband and it were better he were one of the family.’
She could hardly take it in. She had assumed the estate was entailed, but it could not be if he could dispose of it as he had suggested. ‘But I do not want any of them. I do not love them.’
‘Love, bah! Old Batters been filling your head with nonsense, has she? Love has nothing to do with marriage.’
‘I am persuaded you loved your wife.’ Bella had never known her grandmother, the Countess, but Ellen had said she had been a beautiful woman but rather cold and haughty. According to Ellen, she had died of a broken heart, though when Bella had questioned her as to why, she had closed her mouth and refused to say another word. But broken hearts and haughtiness hardly went together, and Bella often wondered which was nearer the truth.
‘No. Arranged marriage, hardly knew the woman, but we became comfortable with each other. That’s the most important thing, you know, to be comfortable.’
‘Well, I am sure Papa loved Mama.’
‘And look where it got him. Dead himself a couple of years after her. A wasted life. All wasted lives…’ His eyes clouded as if he were looking back into past unhappiness. ‘His first wife was not at all suitable. I told him no good would come of it, that he was hardly out of leading strings and should see more of the world before he committed himself, but he would not listen. I let it go. I shan’t make the same mistake with you.’
She had never dared to ask about her father’s first wife—all she knew, and that was from Miss Battersby, was that her father had married the local doctor’s daughter when both had been very young and that she had died after ten years of marriage and almost as many miscarriages. Begetting an heir had been more important than looking after her health. The heir had been the thing. Her father had married again with almost indecent haste and Isabella had been born a year later. It had been four more years before the longed-for heir had come and he had been dead in the space of a se’ennight, together with his mother. When her father had followed, Bella had been the only one left, except for her grandfather’s great-nephews.
Louis was the son of Elizabeth, the elder of Sir John’s daughters, who had married the French Comte de Courville and had lived in France until the Comte had been guillotined in 1793. Elizabeth had brought six-year-old Louis, now the new Comte, and her baby daughter, Colette, to live in England. Bella had seen very little of Louis as a child—his ambitious mother had been too busy making sure he was seen and noticed in Society. And she had succeeded all too well.
According to Miss Battersby, the fount of all gossip, Louis had made a name for himself as a rakeshame and a gambler and had a different woman on his arm almost every time he went out, but they didn’t seem to mind that because he was generous to a fault. Where did his income came from? Bella was not at all sure. Did he need the Westmere inheritance? He was hardly husband material; she did not even like him much.
James Trenchard, the son of Helen, the second daughter, was a widower with twin daughters of six, Constance and Faith. James had inherited his father’s fenland acres and was a farmer from the top of his low-crowned hat down to his mud-caked boots. He was sturdy and reliable but certainly did not excite her senses.
Then came brothers Edward and Robert, progeny of Sir John’s only son. Edward—Sir Edward since his grandfather’s death—cut a very fine figure, not foppish at all, but well dressed in a muted kind of way. He was tall, well built and dignified. ‘Stiff-neck’ was her grandfather’s description of him but Bella thought that was unkind. She had always looked on him as a sort of favourite uncle. He was, in Ellen’s words, ‘a catch’ but as Charlotte Mellish, a Society beauty by all accounts, seemed already to have caught him, he would not offer for her.
Robert she liked as a kind of common conspirator in their childhood scrapes. It had been Robert who had pulled her out when she had fallen through the ice into the dyke one hard winter when they had been skating, who had taken the blame on his own shoulders, though he had begged her not to be so foolish as to venture onto the slippery surface. She managed a watery smile, remembering how cold she had been and how he had wrapped her in his own coat and carried her home.
She had not seen much of him in the last few years because he had been away at the war. He had been a captain in the Hussars and had distinguished himself in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo. Her memories of him were of a tall, gangling youth with a ready smile, but last summer, after the war had ended, he had called at Westmere and she had discovered he had grown tall and well muscled, and heart-stoppingly handsome, with brown eyes that were full of wry humour. Of all the cousins she liked him the best, but Ellen Battersby said he had become somewhat footloose since his discharge. She could not imagine him offering for her, and if he did, she would have to refuse him—she had too much pride to accept him on her grandfather’s terms. Besides, liking wasn’t love, was it?
‘I am sure I can rely on you to choose wisely,’ the Earl went on. ‘Running an estate like Westmere is a grave responsibility. There is not just yourself to consider but everyone who depends on the estate for a livelihood, and that not only means the immediate house and grounds but the villagers. I have always done my best for them…’
‘I know that, Grandpapa, but would it not be best for you to choose your successor and not make it conditional on him marrying me? I would rather earn my living.’
‘Don’t be a goose, child, you are the granddaughter of an earl, not some peasant. And what do you know of the world of work?’
‘I could learn. Grandpapa, please, don’t do this.’
‘My mind’s made up,’ he said. ‘Now finish writing those letters and we’ll send ’em off to the post.’
Bella picked up her pen again with a hand that shook. Could she delay posting them? But how could she? The Earl would expect the young men to arrive, and if they did not, he would send again for them. She wrote slowly and a tear escaped and slid down her cheek to drop with a plop on the letter she was writing. She was hardly aware of it. The old man, losing patience, rang the bell at his side. Sylvester appeared so swiftly she was sure he had been listening outside the door. Oh, what a tasty morsel of gossip this would furnish for the rest of the staff!
‘A glass of brandy, man,’ his lordship ordered. ‘And pour Miss Huntley a cordial. I think she may need it. And then I want you to take my letters to the village and make sure they are put on the mail. Do it yourself, mind. If I find you have handed them over to some stable boy, I shall turn you off, do you understand?’
‘Perfectly, my lord.’ Sylvester poured the brandy from a decanter on a side cupboard, then groped beneath it for the bottle of cordial which was kept there for Bella on the few occasions her grandfather invited her to share refreshment with him. By the time her glass was at her elbow, she had finished the last letter and was dusting it before handing it to her grandfather to sign.
‘Good,’ he said, scrawling ‘Westmere’ on the bottom of each. ‘You write a good hand.’
Hurriedly swallowing her cordial, Bella made her excuses and left her grandfather to Sylvester’s mercies. She needed to get away from the stifling atmosphere of the house into the fresh air, to clear her head and think, to try and make a plan for her future, because assuredly she would need one. Oh, how she wished Miss Battersby would come back. Had her grandfather deliberately timed his announcement knowing she would not be able to turn to the old nurse for comfort and advice?
Grabbing a shawl from her room, she went out into the garden. She hardly noticed the daffodils and gillyflowers in the borders as she wandered across the lawns to the brook which ran along the bottom of the garden, or that the water was very high and lapping the grass. Her mind was on her dilemma. How could she face the men after they had heard what her grandfather proposed? It would be too mortifying to bear.
Would any of them offer for her? Would they show contempt or do as her grandfather said they would and fall over themselves to comply with his wishes? If they did, they would undoubtedly be doing it from the basest motives—money and power and a title—not for any feelings they might have for her. And if she were to accept one of them, her motives would be equally questionable. She needed a home and security and… Surely, her grandfather would not leave her penniless if she refused? Supposing she absented herself from the discussion. Would her grandfather abandon the idea? Supposing she left home? To go where? She did not have another relative in the world and no money. There was no alternative—she had somehow to persuade her grandfather to change his mind.
Bella turned back to the house and saw Sylvester hurrying along the drive towards the village, carrying the four letters which would seal her fate, and she knew it was too late. She had three days to wait and then she would learn the true colours of her grandfather’s great-nephews. Three days and after that…
She did not want to think of that and forced herself to concentrate on preparing for their guests. The next two days she was busy opening up rooms long disused for their accommodation and trying to soothe the ruffled tempers of Cook and Daisy, who had to cope with all the extra work. By the morning when the guests were due to arrive, they were almost mutinous. ‘Hire a couple of footmen,’ her grandfather said when she told him of the problem. ‘You shouldn’t have any trouble—there’s enough men out of work.’
She didn’t bother to argue that most of the men who were out of work were labourers and would not have any idea of the duties of a footman. She hurried to her room, changed into a dark green riding habit and matching hat with its sweeping feather, pulled on her boots and went to the stables to ask for her mare, Misty, to be saddled, glad enough to be free of the stifling atmosphere of the house and enjoy her last few hours of independence.
The grey mare was sturdy rather than elegant but she was game and, because in the last few days the weather had been too inclement to go far, she was in need of exercise. Set to gallop, she responded immediately. As the horse took her across the park, Bella’s thoughts went round and round in her head in time with the thundering hooves, but they always came back to the same thing. Her grandfather’s ultimatum. He must surely have his own preferences about whom he would like to succeed him, but the choice had been left to her. It was an onerous burden she did not want. Was her happiness not to be considered at all? It just wasn’t fair!
Beyond the park, the landscape was completely flat, broken only by an isolated house here and there, a few willow trees and some slowly turning windmills which were used to take the water off the fields and tip it into the dykes that criss-crossed the land. Because of the almost incessant rain since the snow had melted, very little ploughing had been done. Instead of the new green shoots of winter corn making an appearance, the ground was black and soggy and the windmills were kept busy, making sure the ground did not revert to marsh and mere.
She brought Misty back to a trot when she came to the Ely road. Ely was the nearest town of any size and until recently had been a thriving centre of commerce, its roads full of carriages and carts and stagecoaches which called at the several inns in the town, and its quayside busy with wherries and barges bringing in all manner of goods and taking out the produce of the area—grain, fish, vegetables, osiers. But now much of the produce rotted before it found a buyer.
In Ely, there were men loafing in idleness on almost every street corner. Two of them she recognised as coming from one of the farms on her grandfather’s estate. They had wives and children to support but they laughed when she dismounted and asked them if they wanted two or three days’ work in the house. ‘We ain’t bowin’ and scrapin’ for you nor no one,’ they said, and turned away from her.
It was then she realised that there were more people about than usual and they were all making in the same direction, towards the market-place. Curious, she joined them, leading her horse. The open space was crowded with men and women, young and old, gathered around round a tall weather-beaten man with a shock of white hair who was standing on a flat cart, addressing them. It did not take a genius to surmise that this was a seditious meeting and Bella felt a frisson of fear, almost a premonition.
With the price of corn so high, the hungry labourers, unable to afford bread, together with soldiers and sailors who had been discharged without so much as a thank you for their part in the fight against Napoleon, were at the end of their tether. Already there had been disturbances—ricks and barns had been set on fire, mills and bakeries surrounded by mobs shouting, ‘Bread or blood!’
‘It would never have happened in my young day,’ her grandfather had grumbled. ‘The people knew their place and they kept to it, just as the landowners knew their responsibilities towards their tenants. Cobbett’s right there—the new breed of landowners with money made from industry are only interested in the status their new possessions give them. They have no idea how to go on.’
Bella stopped to listen.
‘You may shrug your shoulders and say, “This is nothing to do with me’,” the man was saying. ‘But we are all brethren together. If the labourer in the country goes down, then the town labourer will be next, the workers in the manufactories, the dockers and heavers of coal, all those who do not have a voice because Parliament denies it to them.’
The crowd was silent, listening intently as he went on, ‘When the time comes, all men must rally to the cause against the despots who think property gives them rights over those whose only asset is the sweat of their brow and their strong right arm.’ He paused as a rumble of assent went through his listeners. ‘But those assets are of inestimable value, my friends. The country cannot exist without them. Are you ready to insist on your voice being heard?’
‘Yes.’ A roar went up and they looked from one to another, their eyes gleaming. ‘Fair wages! Votes for the workers! Bread or blood!’
Bella knew she ought to leave, but she was fascinated and edged forward to hear more. And she wasn’t the only outsider in the crowd. Not a dozen paces from her was a tall young man who was obviously not a labourer. He was wearing a riding coat of Bath cloth and fine leather breeches tucked into shining riding boots. His hair beneath his tall hat was dark and curled about his ears in the latest Windswept style. There was no doubt he was a gentleman, one of the hated upper classes. Almost as if he sensed her scrutiny, he turned towards her, shocking her into putting her gloved hand to her open mouth. It was her cousin Robert.
His dark brow lifted in surprise. ‘Bella, what are you doing here?’
He was even taller and broader than she remembered him, more ruggedly handsome, though his expression, as he pushed his way through to her and stood looking down into her upturned face, was difficult to fathom. She thought it might be annoyance. But what right had he to be annoyed with her? And two could play at that game. ‘I might ask you the same thing,’ she retorted, refusing to acknowledge the swift beating of her heart and the flutter in the pit of her stomach as anything more than surprise at seeing him.
‘You may ask, but that’s not to say I will answer.’
She looked beyond him to the other men, some of whom had turned to watch the encounter with deep interest. Did they know who she was? Did they know who Robert was? ‘No, because you should not be listening to sedition—that’s as good as condoning it. What do you think Grandfather would say to that?’
‘He may say whatever he wishes.’
‘You are supposed to be on your way to Westmere.’
He grinned suddenly. ‘Am I? I wonder why?’
She could tell him, she could tell him her grandfather’s plan, warn him what to expect, but decided against it. His lordship wanted all the men to hear it together and he would be angry if she pre-empted that. ‘If you want to know, you’ll have to come, won’t you?’
‘No doubt it has something to do with the inheritance, and as I have no expectations in that direction I see no point to my presence.’
‘It would be very discourteous of you to refuse…’
‘Discourteous!’ He laughed. ‘And I suppose “requested and required” are terms of the utmost courtesy.’
‘Oh, that’s just Grandpapa’s way, you should know that.’ She paused. ‘Why are you in Ely if not to see him?’
‘I could say I came to see you.’
She was taken aback. ‘Why?’
‘Do I have to have a reason to visit a pretty young cousin?’
Bella laughed shakily at the compliment. ‘Now you are bamming me.’
‘Not at all. I was curious about that letter. The handwriting was not up to your usual standard and the paper was blotched. I detected a tear or two and was afraid his lordship must be about to hand in his accounts. Is he?’
She was slightly mollified to know that his concern had been for her and not the inheritance. ‘Not at all. His gout troubles him, but that is all…’
‘He will tell you.’
‘If I come,’ Robert said curtly. ‘Does he know you are out without a chaperone?’
‘I do not need a chaperone. I have lived here all my life, everyone knows me. I am in no danger.’
‘No?’ He turned back to look at the crowd of men behind him. All were watching them warily, including the tall man with the white hair who had stopped speaking until he could regain his audience’s attention. There was a murmur of anger. They were breaking the law by even congregating, and if they recognised Bella as the granddaughter of the biggest landowner in the neighbourhood, they would feel threatened. In their present mood they might even offer violence. He stepped in front of her to protect her, but there were far too many of them for that to be any more than a gesture. ‘Go home, Bella,’ he said. ‘Forget you ever saw these people.’
‘Why?’ she demanded angrily. ‘I heard what that man said and so did you. What do you think they mean to do?’
‘I do not know.’ He had been about to find out when Bella had arrived and now he doubted whether he would learn anything. And she was in danger. He grabbed Misty’s bridle with one hand and, putting his other hand under her bottom, heaved her into the saddle. It was a most inelegant way to mount and she would have had something to say to him for taking such liberties with her person if she had not been so aware of the menace of the crowd.
‘What about you? Are you coming, too?’ she asked, as she settled her foot into the stirrup and picked up the reins.
‘No.’ Then he slapped the mare’s rump hard.
Robert watched her cantering down the road until she was out of sight but by then the men had surrounded him.
Bella did not go back through the crowds to the main road but turned down the hill to the towpath and rode northwards along it, hardly noticing the barges which brought their goods up from the ports at King’s Lynn and Wisbech to Ely, where they would add to the accumulation in the warehouses. Now and again she had to rein in and walk her mount round the horses which towed them but she did it automatically, her mind on her encounter with Robert. She had quite forgotten her original errand.
He had infuriated her. As if any of the local people would harm her! But that man on the cart hadn’t been local and perhaps he was out to stir up trouble. Would Robert try and do anything about it? He undoubtedly thought listening to a man like that was more entertaining than obeying her grandfather’s summons. Would any of them obey it? Whatever would Grandfather do if none of them came?
After two or three miles the towpath continued on the other side of the river and she turned away from it towards the village of Westmere where a few minutes later, she entered the gates of Westmere Hall. She reined in when she came within sight of it. It was a huge house, built a hundred and fifty years before, using a mixture of stone from a local abbey, destroyed during Cromwell’s time, and Peterborough brick. Built on three sides of a rectangle, with steps up to a huge, very ancient oak door, also taken from the abbey, it stood four-square to the prevailing east wind, surrounded by mown lawns and flower-beds, its many windows gleaming in the sunlight.
Bella sighed, wondering how much longer it would remain her home if she refused to obey her grandfather, then spurred Misty round to the stable yard and left her in the care of a stable boy, before entering the house by a back door. In answer to her grandfather’s enquiry, she said she had been unable to find any extra help in Ely.
‘Why go to Ely? There are men in the village.’
‘I’ll send Jolliffe to see if he can find someone.’ She said nothing of the meeting she had interrupted, neither did she tell him she had met Robert. It would be interesting to see if he put in an appearance later that afternoon.
James Trenchard, who lived at Eastmere, barely five miles away, was the first to arrive on horseback. He looked as though he had come straight off the fields. ‘I hope this business won’t take long,’ he said, allowing Jolliffe to take his brown cloth overcoat and flat hat from him. But there was nothing to be done about his hard leather breeches, boots and gaiters, which bore signs of a recent excursion into the farmyard. Bella, greeting him, hoped it was only mud and not something worse. ‘What’s it all about, anyway? Old man’s not ill, is he?’
‘No, he is surprisingly well, except for his gout. Please, go into the drawing room. Jolliffe will serve you some refreshment while you wait.’
‘Wait for what?’
‘The others. The Comte, Sir Edward and Captain Huntley.’
‘Oh, family conference, eh?’
‘Something like that. Now, if you will excuse me…’
She escaped with relief. She would not be surprised if he were the first to fall in with her grandfather’s wishes, perhaps the only one. Would she be obliged to accept him if he were? It had been two years since his wife had died and his two little daughters needed a mother. She felt sorry for them, but the idea of marrying him made her shudder. It wasn’t that she had anything against farmers, especially when they worked as hard as James did, but he thought of nothing else.
He was utterly oblivious of his appearance and she doubted if he had bathed in a twelvemonth. As for his house… It was a good enough house, old and solid, but as there was only a daily woman to keep it clean, it was in a sorry state. She would be expected to turn it round and take the girls in hand. There would be no love, no tenderness.
Bella went to the kitchen to see how Cook was getting on with dinner which would be served after the Earl had delivered his ultimatum, because ultimatum it was. She had a feeling it was going to be a miserable meal. By the time she returned to the drawing room, Edward had arrived.
He was standing by the window, looking out onto the garden, but turned when he heard her enter. He was not quite as tall as Robert, but he had the same dark good looks, except that his features were slightly heavier. He was dressed in a brown frock coat of impeccable cut and biscuit-coloured breeches tucked into tasselled Hessians, polished enough to be used as twin mirrors. His hair was cut in the Brutus style and his neckcloth tied to perfection. None of it was flamboyant, but was quietly elegant. ‘Bella,’ he said, bowing to her. ‘I hope I see you well?’
‘Very well, Edward,’ she responded. Knowing what was to come, she felt very uncomfortable but did her best to hide it under the veneer of being a good hostess. ‘Are your horses being looked after?’
‘Yes, thank you. Took them round to the stables myself. James tells me we are all invited to this jamboree,’ he said.
‘Yes, I had thought you and the Captain might have travelled down together.’
‘I did not know we had both been invited—the letter did not say and as Rob was in London when they both arrived, his was forwarded on to him. I doubt he will tear himself away from Society to come down here. I nearly did not come myself.’
‘Then why did you?’ He obviously did not know Robert was already in the neighbourhood.
‘The letter was couched in terms that implied a certain urgency. I thought his lordship might be ill. James tells me he is not.’
She stopped herself from smiling; Edward had come to the same erroneous conclusion as Robert, that his lordship was dying, but he had not been so blunt in expressing it. ‘He has the gout, but otherwise he is well.’
‘Not touched in the attic either?’ queried James, speaking for the first time. ‘Old age sometimes puts people into strange humours. I remember when Sarah’s mother was dying. Couldn’t even remember where she lived at the end—used to roam all over the fens, talking to herself.’
‘His lordship’s mind is perfectly clear,’ Bella said, wondering as she spoke if that might not be true.
‘Where is he now?’
‘Resting in his room until you all arrive.’
‘Then we may wait an age,’ Edward said. ‘Louis has never been punctual for anything in his life and, as I said, I doubt Rob will come.’
They were interrupted by the sound of carriage wheels on the drive and Bella went to the window to see a magnificent equipage drawing up to the front door. The coach was brilliantly painted in red and green and had the arms of the de Courvilles emblazoned on the side. There were four horses, perfectly matched, and a postillion and a groom who jumped down with alacrity to open the coach door and hand out the occupants.
Bella gasped when she saw the Comtesse de Courville, dressed in a velvet carriage dress and a tall plumed hat, step down onto the gravel, followed by her ladyship’s maid, her son’s valet and, last of all, Louis himself. He was tall, as thin as a rake and dressed in green check pantaloons, yellow waistcoat and bright green coat with black velvet lapels. His collar points scratched his rouged cheeks and his cravat was a froth of exquisitely starched muslin.
‘My God, will you look at that?’ murmured Edward beside her. ‘A dandy to out-dandy them all. I am surprised he can afford it.’
‘I must go and greet them,’ Bella said, wondering how they were going to accommodate everyone. She had never dreamed that her ladyship would come with her son and bring her maid, not to mention the coachman and postillion. She sincerely hoped Spooner, her grandfather’s head groom, would be able to find places for the extra horses.
Bella arrived in the great hall just as her ladyship preceded her son into the house and an open-mouthed Jolliffe was moving forward to meet them. Behind them, the maid and valet were struggling with baggage enough to last a month.
‘Your ladyship, this is an unexpected pleasure,’ she said, aware that Louis had doffed his curly brimmed hat and was staring about him with pale blue eyes, as if summing up the value of everything he could see. ‘Do come into the drawing room while I arrange for refreshment for you and for your rooms to be prepared. Did you have a pleasant journey?’
That was a mistake, she realised. ‘No, we did not,’ the Comtesse said. ‘It was a great inconvenience. No time to pack properly, no time to arrange accommodation on the road and everyone most uncivil…’
‘I am sorry to hear that,’ Bella said, refraining from adding it was the lady’s own fault—she had not been invited. Why she should have assumed that her presence was required, Bella did not know. What would her grandfather say? He had never dealt well with this particular niece.
Louis had completed his inspection and now turned his attention to Bella. He swept her an exaggerated bow and took her hand. ‘Bella, your servant. Looking pretty as a picture, I see.’
Determined to make herself as unattractive as possible, she had chosen to wear a plain jaconet gown in an unbecoming grey, with a straight bodice and high neckline, lined with lace. Her skirt was full and stiff and hid her trim figure. Her hair was dressed simply and had no ornament. They would have to overcome an aversion to her looks before embarking on courtship. And it seemed that Louis was already learning to do this. Or else he was extremely short-sighted.
Bella led the way into the drawing room where the Comtesse stopped in the middle of another tirade against the ostlers at the last inn they had called at when she saw James and Edward. ‘What are you two doing here?’ she demanded.
‘Sent for, same as you,’ Edward said, bowing. ‘How are you, Aunt?’
‘Sent for?’ she queried, not bothering to return his greeting. ‘I did not know it was to be a party. Thought his lordship had asked for Louis to talk about his inheritance. Decided I’d best be here to hear it.’
‘Mama, doing it a bit too brown,’ Louis murmured, while he examined James from head to toe through his quizzing glass as if he were a prize animal at market. ‘I say, coz, you could at the least have had a wash before presenting yourself. Insult to Mama and Miss Huntley, don’t you know.’
‘It’s none of your business, sir. I earn my keep in honest toil and if our kinsman is so thoughtless as to give me no time to make other arrangements, then he must needs take me as he finds me.’
Bella thought it was time she intervened. ‘Edward, if you are sure Robert is not going to come, I think I had better go and tell his lordship you are all assembled.’
She hurried from the room, glad to escape, though how her grandfather would react when he saw the Comtesse she did not dare to think. Nor what he would say when he realised Robert had not deigned to obey his summons. Perhaps she ought to tell him that she had seen Robert in Ely, but that would mean explaining what he had been doing there. But he had only been listening, as she had. It did not mean he was colluding with the dissidents, did it?
Sylvester answered Bella’s knock on the door of the Earl’s apartments. ‘Please, tell his lordship Mr Trenchard, the Comte de Courville and Sir Edward have arrived, but he does not think Captain Huntley will have received his invitation in time to obey.’ She paused. ‘And warn him the Comtesse is here, too.’
‘Oh, is she?’ came a bellow from an inner room. ‘Well, I shall give her a right about, poking her nose in where it’s not wanted.’ He appeared at the door, dressed in a mulberry velvet jacket and matching breeches and clutching a walking stick. ‘Take my arm, girl. Let’s see what those young bloods are made of.’
‘Do you need me?’ she asked timidly. ‘Could I not wait in my room?’
‘No, you could not. Want to see their faces…’
‘But I don’t.’
‘Yes, you do.’
To which there was no answer, and they made their slow and stately way down to the withdrawing room. Before entering, the Earl stood in the doorway and surveyed the company gathered there. Edward bowed slightly, James gave a curt nod and Louis flung out his arm in an extravagant gesture and bowed low. ‘Your servant, my lord.’
The Earl grunted and, leaning heavily on Bella’s arm, made his way over to a high-backed armchair and lowered himself into it. Then he turned to the Comtesse. ‘What are you doing here? I do not recollect asking you to come.’
She dipped a curtsey. ‘An oversight, I am sure, Uncle. How do you do?’
‘Well enough. Not about to shuffle off, at any rate.’
‘I should hope not!’ she said with false brightness. ‘But if you are about to settle your affairs, then I must tell you it is not before time.’
‘What has it to do with you, madam?’
‘Louis is your heir.’
‘Is he? We shall see.’
‘What do you mean by that? My goodness, if you mean to try and disinherit him, it is as well I decided to come, too.’
‘You take too much upon yourself, madam. I wish you to leave us. Find something to amuse you while I talk to these reprobates.’
Elizabeth looked as though she were about to throw a fit, but then, realising he would not proceed while she stayed, flung her head up in disgust and sailed from the room. Bella, who was standing beside her grandfather’s chair, bent and whispered, ‘Should I go, too, Grandfather? She is truly upset and I could keep her company.’
‘No, you will stay here. Sit on that stool.’ He indicated a stool at his feet, then looked up at the three young men. ‘Sit down, you will give me a crick in the neck from peering up at you.’ And as they obeyed he added, ‘Edward, where is that cork-brained brother of yours?’
‘He was in Town when your letters arrived, my lord. I forwarded his, but he may not have received it in time to make arrangements to be here.’
‘More likely demonstrating his independence.’ He gave a grunt of amusement. ‘And he the least independent of the lot of you.’
‘He may yet come,’ Bella ventured, wondering where Robert was. She would not put it past him to keep them waiting on purpose, doing as her grandfather had suggested and asserting his independence. Or proving to her he would not be coerced by anything she had said. She wouldn’t put it beyond him to invite those argumentative labourers to join him in a glass of something at one of the many inns in Ely. ‘We could wait a little longer.’
‘I am not in the habit of waiting on ill-mannered jack-at-warts.’
‘My lord,’ Edward protested. ‘There is nothing wrong with my brother’s manners.’
‘Well, we shall proceed without him.’ He paused to look round at them, smiling slightly. ‘What a gaggle of fine geese you are, to be sure. But you are all I have, bar Bella. You don’t deserve her, not any of you, and if I had any choice I would not let her within a mile of you.’ He sighed heavily. ‘But my mind’s made up. One of you shall have her.’
Bella, who had been sitting looking at her feet, risked a glance at them. She was confronted by three open mouths, though no sound issued from any of them. They had obviously been struck dumb.
‘Well?’ the old man said. ‘Haven’t you anything to say for yourselves?’
‘What would you have us say?’ Edward was the first to recover. ‘Miss Huntley is a dear child. I am very fond of her but—’
‘That, at least, is a start. But are you so blind that you cannot see what is before your eyes? She is no longer a child. While you have been sowing your wild oats, she has become a marriageable woman.’
Edward turned to Bella, smiling to soften what appeared to be a rejection of her. ‘I beg your pardon, Bella, I meant no offence. You are beautiful and a man would have to be blind not to see that, but—’
‘But you do not like being coerced,’ she put in quickly, so that he might know it was not her idea. ‘And neither do I. Please, do not consider it.’
‘Then what is the point of this meeting?’
‘I’ll tell you, shall I?’ the old man said. ‘Isabella cannot have the management of a fortune, though I have no doubt she would make a better job of it than you, Louis.’ He looked at the young man’s extravagant clothes. ‘Your tailor’s bill alone would bankrupt the estate. I could appoint trustees until she married but I ain’t keen on the idea. I want to see her married before I hand in my accounts.’
‘Very laudable,’ Louis said. ‘But I shall choose my own wife.’
‘Indeed, I hope you may,’ Bella said, very near to tears, not at being rejected but at the humiliation of it all.
‘Bella, please, do not cry,’ Edward said. ‘There is plenty of time for you to make a good match whatever the old greybeard says.’
‘And I could rule you out for such impertinence.’
‘I have already ruled myself out, sir, but you forget my brother is not here to speak for himself.’
‘Who is to blame for that? I have told Bella she shall have her choice, but if she is sighing after that ne’er-do-well, she must find a way of bringing him to the mark.’
‘Grandpapa, I am not sighing after him. I am not sighing after anyone and I wish you would not speak of me as if I were not in the room. I might as well go and bear the Comtesse company.’ It was unlike her to be so bold but she was being driven beyond endurance.
‘Then it must be one of the others,’ he said, ignoring her.
‘I am your heir,’ Louis said. ‘But that does not mean you may dictate…’
The old man smiled. ‘You are sure of that, are you?’
‘No, of course he is not,’ Edward said. ‘The estate is entailed and must be handed down through the male line. And that means through Papa.’
‘Is that so?’ The old man seemed to be enjoying teasing them, although his tone was crotchety, as if he would quickly lose patience with them. ‘You are very quick to lay your claim, but I have not heard you offer for Isabella.’
James, who had been listening to this exchange with a bemused look on his face, suddenly came to life and looked from Bella to the Earl. ‘Are you saying that whoever marries Bella will inherit?’
‘Yes, but he must make a push. I said there was no time to lose and I meant it.’
‘You do not mean to say you have broken the entail?’ Edward said, shocked to the core. ‘You can’t have done. The only people to gain by such a procedure are the lawyers. You’d be left without a feather to fly with.’
‘And you are grasping at straws,’ his lordship said.
‘I don’t believe it,’ Louis said. ‘The old man is trying to gammon one of us into marrying the chit.’
‘I spoke first,’ James put in. ‘Miss Huntley, may I crave a moment alone with you?’
Everyone turned to look at the overweight farmer in his filthy clothes. He was not in the habit of making decisions in a hurry, but he knew that to be first in with his offer would be a distinct advantage.
‘Oh, Bella,’ Edward said, as Bella looked from one to the other, dismay written all over her face. ‘You do not have to accept him, whatever his lordship says.’
Louis, who had been silently watching her through his quizzing glass for some time, let it drop to dangle on its ribbon from his wrist and turned to James. ‘You do not, for a minute, suppose Miss Huntley will receive you looking like that,’ he said. ‘Or smelling like you do. Go home and bath and change.’
‘While you insert yourself in my place.’
Louis laughed in a high-pitched, effeminate way. ‘Lah, that is the last thing I would do. Insert myself anywhere you had been, I mean.’ He fetched a lace handkerchief from his pocket and waved it before his nose. ‘My lord, pray send him on his way.’
‘Bella?’ The Earl appealed to her. ‘Do you want me to send him away?’
Before she could answer, they heard a commotion in the hall and Jolliffe’s voice protesting loudly and another, even angrier, saying, ‘I am come to speak to Mr Trenchard and speak to him I will.’
‘Go and see what is happening,’ the Earl instructed Bella. ‘Tell Jolliffe to send whoever it is on his way. I will not have brawls in my house.’
Bella, thankful for the interruption, hurried to obey. A man of middling years in the working clothes of a labourer was standing in the hall, wringing his cap in his hands.
‘What is it, Jolliffe?’
‘He wants to speak to Mr Trenchard,’ the butler said in aggrieved tones. ‘I told him you were all about to go in to dinner…’
‘And lucky you are to have a dinner to go to,’ the man said, stung to anger. ‘You don’t think I wanted to come here, do you? It won’t serve me well when they hear of it.’
‘Who?’ asked Bella.
‘The Eastmere men, miss. They’re all over the place. They said they’d pull the barn down and wreck the house if Mr Trenchard don’t come and give them money.’
James had followed Bella into the hall. ‘What is it, man? Can I not leave you five minutes but you must come running after me?’
‘Mr Trenchard, sir, the men are rioting and they came to the farm. They want money. Fifty pounds they said on account of low wages and the price of bread.’
‘I wish I had fifty pounds to give them,’ James said morosely. ‘Tell them to go to the parish overseer—he is the one they should be applying to.’ Since the parish had adopted the Speenhamland system, the shortfall on wages had been paid by the poor rates, a far from ideal situation which meant that the farmers had no incentive to pay a realistic wage and their men were forced to go cap in hand to charity. They salvaged their pride by calling it an allowance which they should have as of right.
‘Sir, you must come, or they will burn the house down.’
‘Faith and Constance?’ he queried in alarm. ‘Where are they? Are they safe?’
‘Mrs Clarke is looking after them but she is afraid for her life…’
‘James, you must go at once,’ Bella said, appalled. Was this what the meeting in Ely had been about? The mob must have stopped talking in favour of action. But why pick on James? Where was Robert? Did he know about it? ‘I am sure the Earl will excuse you.’
‘Yes, I must.’ Then to his foreman, ‘I’ll ride on. Follow as fast as you can, I might need you.’ He was halfway to the door when he stopped and turned back to Bella. ‘Miss Huntley, I beg leave to return to settle the matter we were discussing.’
She nodded without answering, wondering if she could have done anything to stop the trouble with the labourers. Perhaps she should have warned James about them, but her mind had been too full of the coming meeting with her cousins to connect a crowd of men in Ely with her cousin and his farm. She returned to the drawing room to acquaint the Earl with what had happened. He seemed not to be concerned for James’s safety. To him it was inconceivable that a handful of unruly labourers could not be controlled.
‘Can’t think what the justices are playing at,’ he said. ‘I knew this would happen when they gave in to the mob in Suffolk last year. Now they are all at it. They should send for the militia to round them up—a spell in prison would soon bring them to a proper sense of their place.’
‘Grandfather, they are starving and driven beyond endurance,’ Bella said.
‘What is that to the point? A few discontented labourers will not make me change my mind.’ The Earl was more concerned with his own little drama than the greater one being played out in the villages and fields of East Anglia. ‘And you would do well to consider your own position. You can assume you have had one offer, at least.’
James, she knew, was desperately pinched in the pocket in spite of his grandfather’s small annuity, and if the mob destroyed his barn, it might well ruin him. She felt sorry for him, but she could not marry him. She could not. ‘My lord, please, do not make me take James.’
‘I am not going to make you, child. I should be unhappy if you had been too quick to say yes. He is not the only one.’
She was mystified. He knew whom he wanted to offer for her and yet he would not say. She looked at the other two men. Edward looked furious and Louis was smiling mockingly. What were they thinking?
Before anyone could give utterance to their thoughts, Jolliffe appeared again. ‘My Lord, Cook asks if you wish to keep dinner back.’
‘Oh, no,’ Bella said. ‘It will spoil if we do. Grandpapa, please, let us postpone this discussion.’
‘Very well. We cannot continue until James returns. Tell Cook we are going to the dining room now. And send Sylvester to tell the Comtesse.’ He allowed Edward to help him to his feet and then escorted Bella out of the room, across the vast hall to the formal dining room. It was a very big room and struck them as cold as they entered it. Bella shivered. She had wanted to dine in one of the smaller rooms, but her grandfather had overruled her. ‘I am going to show those upstarts how an earl entertains,’ he had said. ‘One of them will have to become used to it.’
The Comtesse joined them as they seated themselves at the long refectory table, with the Earl at its head and Bella at the opposite end. Elizabeth took her place on his lordship’s left. ‘This place is as cold as a tomb,’ she said, looking at the dismal fire. ‘And just about as cheerful.’
‘I am sorry, my lady,’ Bella said. ‘We do not often use this room and it is the first fire we have lit in here this year. I fear the chimney needs sweeping. I will see to it first thing tomorrow.’
‘Uncle, you need a proper housekeeper,’ Elizabeth said. ‘Isabella is far too young for such a responsibility.’
‘I think Bella does very well,’ Edward said. ‘I do not doubt that his lordship allowed her no time to prepare for such an unexpected influx of visitors.’
‘That would account for the state of my room,’ Elizabeth said, watching as Daisy, in a new dress and apron and shaking with nerves, brought in the first course with the help of a temporary footman from the village. ‘It is thick with dust and the fire is so feeble it is no better than a peasant’s.’
Bella did not think the Comtesse had any idea of what a peasant’s fire was like, or that the poor man would not think of lighting one in a bedroom.
‘Your own fault,’ the Earl put in. ‘We do not keep rooms ready against unexpected guests. It would be a criminal waste in these hard times. I suggest you change apartments with your son, whose rooms were prepared.’
‘Of course, Mama,’ Louis said, anxious not to quarrel with his great uncle. ‘I’ll have my things moved out as soon as we have finished our meal.’
Slightly mollified, Elizabeth turned to Bella. ‘Where is Miss Battersby? I would have expected her to have come forward to make me welcome if you were too busy, attending to everyone else’s needs.’
‘She is visiting her sick sister in Downham Market. I expect her back at any time,’ Bella explained.
Elizabeth was shocked. ‘My lord, surely you are not keeping a young unmarried girl here without companion or chaperone? There will be the most prodigious scandal if it gets abroad.’
‘Fustian!’ he said. ‘I am her grandfather and this is her home. Always will be…’
‘As to that, I am sure Louis is not such a pinchpenny as to deny her a home when he comes into his own, but it will hardly be proper for her to stay here while he is unmarried.’
‘You presume too much, madam,’ the Earl said, favouring her with a glacial look.
‘Oh, Mama,’ Louis put in. ‘His lordship is determined on Miss Huntley bringing forth an heir before he dies.’
‘What is that to the point?’
The Earl sighed. ‘Tell her, Louis.’
‘His lordship is determined on marrying her to one of us,’ Louis told his mother, his usually pale complexion suffused with colour. ‘It is to be a condition of inheriting.’
‘You mean he is trying to force you to marry Isabella?’ She looked at the girl as she spoke and her expression told clearly what she thought of that idea.
‘Or Edward. Or James. Or Robert,’ he said morosely. ‘Her child will take precedence.’
‘He can’t do it,’ she said. ‘She is a female and the estate is entailed.’
‘Would you like to put it to the test?’ his lordship said.
‘I own Edward might think he had a claim,’ Elizabeth conceded, ‘though he would be in error, but the other two…’ It was past belief and her voice rose as she appealed to her uncle. ‘I cannot conceive that you would ever consider them. One is a clodhopper and the other a scapegrace.’
‘I said Bella may have her choice and I shall hold to that,’ he said. ‘James has already indicated his intention to offer for her.’
‘You will never let her go to the muckraker? My goodness, you must be touched in the attic even to think it. James Trenchard in this house!’ She laughed loudly, though her laughter was a little forced. ‘Can you imagine it? He would keep pigs in the drawing room and chickens in the hall. I should hope Isabella has more sense than to consider such an offer. And as for you, Edward, you are already engaged to Miss Charlotte Mellish.’
‘Not precisely,’ he said laconically.
‘How so, not precisely? Either you are or you are not, and I have it on good authority it wants but the announcement in The Gazette. You will be the worst kind of rakeshame if you renege on it and deserve to be cut dead.’
‘For your information, ma’am, I have not yet made a formal offer and may be rejected.’
‘Oh, so you mean to make yourself so disagreeable to Miss Mellish that she will have no hesitation but to end the affair. Very clever.’ She turned to Bella. ‘You would be making a fatal mistake if you were to take him on those terms, my dear…’
‘I have not said I will have any of them,’ Bella said in an anguished voice. ‘I cannot think that all this quarrelling and argument can result in happiness for any of us. Grandfather, please, tell everyone you have been hoaxing them.’
‘I shall tell them no such thing.’ He turned to the footman who had brought in the second remove and signalled him to serve it. ‘Now let us finish our meal in peace.’
The Comtesse opened her mouth to speak again but changed her mind and began eating her fish course with studied concentration. Bella knew she would have more to say as soon as the meal was over and she dreaded it.
She looked up and saw Edward smiling at her. She was not sure whether he was laughing at her or sympathising with her. Did he really mean to turn his back on Miss Mellish and make her an offer for the sake of the inheritance? What would it be like, being married to him under those conditions, knowing she was second best? It would hardly be propitious for a happy marriage. And would he be faithful to her? How long before he neglected her and sought the arms of Charlotte?
The interminable meal dragged on, as course after course was placed before them, picked at and taken away. The ladies remained silent, but Louis became increasingly foxed on his lordship’s wine and even Edward seemed to have lost some of his haughtiness by the time they reached the fruit course. They seemed to have forgotten, or were ignoring, the reason they were there and spoke of every subject under the sun except the one uppermost in their thoughts. It was like a cat and mouse game. Bella was counting the minutes to her escape when Jolliffe came to tell his lordship that Captain Huntley had arrived.
‘Then he may go hungry,’ his lordship said. ‘We have nearly finished. Put him in the drawing room to wait for us there.’
‘My lord, he is…’ Jolliffe paused. ‘He is somewhat dishevelled. I believe he has met with an accident.’
Bella gasped and even Elizabeth looked startled. Edward put down his cutlery and rose. ‘Is he hurt? Where is he?’
Robert himself appeared in the doorway behind Jolliffe. His beautiful cloth coat was torn and muddied, his cravat askew and he had lost his hat. What was worse, he had a bad cut over one eye which was encrusted with dried blood and a great purple bruise below it. He bowed to Elizabeth at the same time as he managed a quirky smile for Bella, who would have rushed forward to help him if the look he gave her had not halted her in her tracks. It warned her to be silent and not invite her grandfather’s close questioning. ‘A thousand apologies, ladies. I will take my leave until I am more presentable. Excuse me, my lord.’ To Edward he said, ‘Help me to my room, Teddy. Need a bath.’ He limped out of the room on the arm of his brother.
‘Well!’ Elizabeth exclaimed. ‘Been brawling like a prize-fighter and dares to show his face in the dining room. What is the world coming to? No manners any more, no respect. Is it any wonder the lower classes defy their betters when they have no good example to live by.’
‘I am sure Robert has not been brawling,’ Bella said, wondering just what had happened. ‘No doubt he will enlighten us when he is feeling more the thing.’
‘Then let us retire to the drawing room, you and I,’ the Comtesse went on. ‘We shall have a comfortable coze, while his lordship and Louis talk business.’ And with that she took Bella’s arm in a very firm grip, curtsied to the Earl without relaxing it and almost dragged the girl to the drawing room.
‘Now,’ she said when they were seated and the teatray had been brought in, ‘tell me what has brought on this curious humour in my uncle. Have you noticed him behaving strangely lately? Not quite himself, eh?’
‘He has been perfectly at ease with himself, except for his gout. It troubles him a great deal but he will not take the doctor’s advice and refrain from drinking. He says gout has nothing to do with the claret and burgundy he consumes, but is caused by the wet weather we have been having. And he may be right. It has been the wettest spring anyone can remember and many of the fields are inundated, which does not make the labourers’ plight any easier. Farmers like James are in sad straits themselves and cannot pay their men who have to apply to the parish…’
‘Are you being purposely obtuse, Isabella? I care not a fig for the farmers, so long as they pay their rents on time. I am talking about this insane notion to marry you off for a legacy. I do believe old Hanson has put the old man up to it.’
Mr George Hanson was the Earl’s legal man. ‘Why should he do that?’
‘To try and disinherit Louis. He has never looked on my son with any favour. He sees him as a Frenchman and therefore to be viewed with suspicion, which is very hard on my poor boy who has spent almost his entire life in England and renounced his lands in France.’
‘Renounced them?’ Bella queried, dragging her mind from what was happening upstairs to pay attention. ‘I thought they had been taken from him by the Revolutionaries.’
‘They were, but there are moves afoot to restore them. They will be ruined and worthless by now, of course, and I do not wish to go back.’ She shuddered. ‘And if we are not careful the contagion will spread and we shall have revolution here, on our doorstep.’
‘Oh, no, surely not?’
‘I saw evidence on our journey here—ricks burned, barns pulled down and posters pinned to empty shops. “Bread or blood,” they say. It is how it started in France. We need steadfast people like Louis at the helm to prevent it. That is why it is so important his legacy should not be put up to auction.’
Bella would not have described Louis as steadfast, but she let that go. She smiled crookedly. ‘Is the notion of your son being married to me so distasteful, my lady?’
‘Oh, you are a pleasant enough chit but, tell me, what have you to recommend you to a man of the world like Louis? Tucked away in the country, the companion of an old man who has forgotten what it is like to be in Society, how can you possibly know how to go on? Louis needs someone from the ton, someone with presence, not a timid little mouse. The court is full of beautiful women and Colette has the ear of the Regent, who will advise us.’
It was not only the Regent’s ear Elizabeth’s daughter had, Bella thought irreverently. By all accounts she had been possessed of other parts of his anatomy on occasion. And Louis must be a poor apology for a man to allow his mother and sister to choose his bride for him. ‘I would not dream of coming between Louis and his aspirations at court,’ she said.
‘Good. Then we are agreed. You will refute this strange idea of the Earl’s and not choose any of them. I can promise you, on Louis’s behalf, that you will not be let starve.’
Bella supposed she was meant to be grateful for that, but before she could find a suitable reply his lordship and Louis had come into the room and she was obliged to busy herself, pouring tea for them. It was only when no one spoke that she realised both men looked furious. Louis was decidedly pink about the ears and the Earl’s face was almost purple. Bella was afraid he was going to have a fit of apoplexy.
‘Grandpapa, I do believe you have overtaxed yourself,’ she said. ‘Should you not go and lie down for a while?’
‘I will go when I am ready. Where are Edward and Robert?’
‘They have not come down again.’
He rang the bell furiously and sent the footman scurrying upstairs to summon the two young men. When they appeared, Robert had bathed and changed his clothes and was wearing a green frockcoat, pale brown pantaloons and tasselled Hessians, with a fresh shirt and a new cravat, though there was no disguising the injury to his face.
‘Well, what have you to say for yourself?’ his lordship asked when the young man had made his apologies for his earlier appearance.
‘I was on my way here when I was set upon by a mob,’ he said, seating himself and taking a cup of tea from Bella, who found her hand shaking so much the cup rattled in the saucer. ‘They were the equal of any bloodthirsty French soldiers I met on the battlefield. And I had no weapon, not that a gun would have availed me, there were too many of them. They pulled me from my horse and demanded my money.’
‘Where was this?’ Bella asked.
He turned to look at her, surveying her slowly, taking in the homely grey dress and heightened colour and deciding that her obvious effort to appear unattractive had had the opposite effect. She was lovely. ‘At the crossroads between here and Eastmere. They were marching and filling the whole road. I could not avoid them.’
‘I should hope you did not give in to them,’ Elizabeth said.
‘I would not be sitting here if I had not, but I did not submit without a protest, which is why one hothead dealt me a blow with the club he carried.’
‘Rabble,’ the Comtesse said. ‘Call out the militia. Hang the lot of them or we shall end up with our heads in a basket, just as it happened in France.’
‘Oh, I do not think so,’ Robert said mildly. ‘The cases are very different. These are simple men driven to excess. When I expressed my sympathy with them, they took the money I proffered and bade me proceed very civilly. They did not take other valuables, or my luggage, which is a blessing or I would have had nothing to wear but what I stood up in.’
‘Did you see Mr Trenchard?’ Bella asked.
‘No, should I have?’
‘He was sent for to go home. His servant said the labourers were threatening to pull his barn down and wreck his house.’
‘No, I did not see him. But he is not the only one to suffer—the mob I saw had been on the rampage for some time, most of ’em pot valiant. It will take the militia to make them return to their homes.’
‘Oh, dear, I hope there will no blood shed,’ she said. ‘The poor have been sorely tried, what with the price of flour and bread rising so high and wages so low.’
‘Your sympathy does you credit, Bella,’ Edward said. ‘But it does not give them the right to take the law into their own hands. Destroying the property of those they depend on will not serve.’
‘Did you demand their names?’ the Earl asked Robert. ‘I can send for the constable to have them taken up and charged.’
‘No, I did not. It is unlikely they would have furnished them if I had.’ He put down his cup and stood up. ‘Now, if you will excuse me, I am devilish hungry and as Edward has been so obliging as to replace the contents of my purse, I will repair to the local hostelry and bespeak me a meal.’
‘Oh, dear, how thoughtless of me,’ Bella said. ‘Robert, please, be seated again and I will ask Cook to find something for you…’
‘No need, my dear, no need at all. I shall do very well at the tavern.’
‘But do you not wish to know why his lordship has called us all together?’ Louis asked.
‘Oh, as to that, Edward has acquainted me with the facts of the matter. I am sorry to say it, but I think the whole thing is a fudge and I wish I had saved myself the expense of the journey to hear it. I might still be in possession of my purse. And this…’ He pointed to his eye. ‘This might be its proper size and colour.’
Bella was delighted by his answer and found herself smiling. He swept her an elegant leg and then moved forward to take her hand and raise it to his lips. His brown eyes, looking into hers above the hand he held, were full of merriment. She was glad someone could find humour in the situation. ‘My apologies, dear Bella. I do not mean to disparage you, but you must see that any marriage based on coercion will not serve. Besides, however much I might wish to, I cannot enter a contest against my brother. He has a right, I do not.’
‘Right!’ Louis exploded furiously. ‘If anyone has a right—’
‘Oh, please, do not quarrel,’ Bella intervened. ‘I cannot bear it. Grandpapa, please say something…’
He simply smiled and rang for Sylvester to help him to his room. As soon as he had gone Elizabeth bade Louis follow her upstairs to see if the servants had obeyed their instructions to change their rooms and, no doubt, to talk about what they would do next, leaving Bella facing Edward and Robert. She looked from one to the other in despair.
‘I am so sorry,’ she said. ‘This is none of my doing. I cannot think what has got into Grandfather…’
‘Touched in the attic,’ Robert said. ‘Must be. Not fair on you, not fair at all. Edward thinks so, too, don’t you, Teddy?’
Thus appealed to, his brother agreed wholeheartedly. ‘If he is thinking of your future, as he says he is, then he could easily secure that with an annuity or a good dowry.’
‘But don’t you see?’ she cried. ‘My dowry is to be Westmere.’
‘I am not sure he can legally do it,’ Edward said.
‘Oh, how I wish Papa were still alive,’ she said. ‘There would be no argument and none of this would be happening.’
‘If it is any comfort, you have our support,’ Robert said. ‘I promise you neither of us will offer for you.’
It was all too much and she fled to her room, where she flung herself across the bed and sobbed. How could her grandfather be so cruel? How could Robert think it would give her comfort to know that he would not offer for her? He still saw her as the young cousin he had sometimes condescended to amuse as a child, the little girl he had taught to ride and fish when he had visited Westmere on his summer vacation from Cambridge. But as her grandfather had pointed out, she had gown up and was now at a marriageable age. Oh, how she wished Miss Battersby would come home. She needed her.
Ellen Battersby was a little dotty, given to romantic notions and great sighings over the novels she read, and would insist on using their characters as examples of how to behave or not to behave. Bella humoured her, which was more than the Earl did. He was often so outspoken as to be rude to her and consequently the poor woman avoided his presence as much as possible. Perhaps that was why she had stayed away so long. But Bella needed her.
If Miss Battersby could not come home, then she would go to her and seek her out. It was only a short ride to Downham Market, and if no other remedy for her troubles presented itself, then she would stay away, find a way to earn her own living. She rose and changed into her riding habit. She did not want to meet any others of the household for they would surely want to know where she was going, so she carried her boots in her hand and crept along the upper gallery towards the back stairs.
It was gloomy and smelled damp in this unused part of the house, and she shivered a little, as if the ghosts of previous Huntleys were following her progress. She was glad when she found the small door at the back of the oldest part of the building and slipped out into the fresh air.
Bella stopped to put on her boots, gathered up her skirts in her hand and sped to the stables. The stable boys were all busy elsewhere and the head groom was, no doubt, sleeping off his dinner in the room above. She spoke quietly to Misty to stop her snickering while she saddled her, then she led the mare out and, mounting from the block by the stable door, rode down the drive and out onto the road, where she turned towards Downham Market.
Absorbed by her own problems she had not given a thought to the riots or whether she might be riding into danger, but it became apparent the minute she entered the small hamlet of Eastmere, which was on the road to Downham Market. A crowd of angry men and women were marching down the street, carrying pitchforks and clubs. Two of them held a banner. ‘Bread or blood,’ it said in crude black letters.
She reined in and pulled Misty to one side to allow them to pass, but there were so many and they were so angry. They pushed and shoved and frightened the mare so much she snorted and pranced and was in danger of injuring those nearest to her. Her rider hauled hard on the reins but the horse, objecting to this unaccustomed harsh treatment, reared up so violently that Bella was thrown down among the trampling feet.
The first person she saw when she opened her eyes was Robert. He was kneeling beside her and she had her head in his lap. ‘Thank the good Lord,’ he said. ‘I thought you were done for…’
‘Misty threw me…’
‘I know, it was lucky I saw it happen, though I could hardly believe my eyes. After what happened this morning, how could you be such a ninny as to ride out alone?’
‘I am not a ninny.’ Her hat had fallen off and her hair had come down. She was acutely conscious of the picture she must present and struggled to sit up but, overcome by dizziness, she collapsed back into his arms.
He looked down at her, torn between scolding her and comforting her. ‘Are you hurt? Any bones broken?’
It was strange how warm and comforting his arms were and how safe she felt, even though the tumult still raged about them and they were in grave danger of being trampled underfoot. ‘No, I do not think so. My head aches.’
Robert put his hand gently behind her head. ‘I am not surprised. There is a bump the size of an egg here and it’s bleeding.’ He looked about him, wondering how to get her safely away. The furious fenmen were out of control and he did not think it would serve to appeal to their better nature, especially if they recognised him. The encounter he had had with them earlier that day had been enough to convince him they meant business.
There was an inn across the road which had only minutes before been swarming with rioters but, having drunk it dry, they had now moved on. It was hardly the place to take a delicately nurtured young lady, but there was no help for it. He scrambled to his feet and retrieved her hat, which he put it into her hands, before stooping and picking her up in his arms as easily as if she were a child. Kicking the door of the inn open, he carried her inside and sat her on a settle, seating himself beside her. ‘Better rest here until the furore has died down.’
It was a dingy, low-ceilinged room, its paintwork blackened by smoke and with an all-pervading smell of stale beer, which caught in her nostrils and made her choke. No one came to serve them, which was not at all surprising, but a young lad of eleven or twelve stood in the doorway of the back room, staring at them with curiosity. ‘Sixpence if you catch the grey horse and bring it here,’ Robert said. ‘And another for bringing the black stallion you will find tethered in the yard of The King’s Head.’ The boy disappeared with alacrity.
‘He might bring the rioters back with him,’ Bella murmured.
‘No, they are too intent on what they are doing.’ He left her and returned with a glass of water. Sitting beside her, he helped her drink it. Then he took the glass away and fetched a bowl of water. ‘I couldn’t find a clean cloth,’ he said, taking a linen handkerchief from his coat pocket and dipping it in the bowl. ‘Let me see how bad that injury is.’
Robert’s fingers were very gentle as he washed the blood from her hair and the back of her head. ‘It’s not as severe as I first thought,’ he said, moving his hand from the back of her head and stroking her cheek with his forefinger. ‘My poor Bella, you are as pale as a ghost.’
She tried not to think of what his gentle touch was doing to her, making her go hot and cold all over. Or was it the shock of being thrown from her horse? How fortunate it was that he had been on hand or she would have been trampled to death. ‘I am only a little shaken,’ she said. ‘I shall be right as ninepence by and by, thank you.’
‘My pleasure.’ He was smiling, which made the purple swelling below his eye more pronounced. She wondered if it hurt him as much as her head hurt her. She supposed it did, though he gave no indication of it.
‘Robert, what are you doing here?’
‘Looking after you.’
‘No, I do not mean that. I meant in Eastmere.’
‘I came to see if I could be of any use to James. They were talking about him in The King’s Head where I had my dinner. It seems they think he is the most likely to hand over money without putting up too much resistance on account of his children.’
‘Do you think he is in danger?’
‘Hard to tell, but he would be well advised to give them what they want.’
‘Or they will give him a taste of what they gave you.’
He smiled ruefully, touching his bruised cheek. ‘Something like that.’
‘Did it happen in Ely, after I left?’
‘Ely, Eastmere, what’s the difference?’ he said enigmatically. It would not help the situation if she felt she ought to be grateful to him. Gratitude was not what he wanted. ‘The whole countryside is in ferment.’
‘You don’t think the Comtesse is right, do you? About revolution, I mean.’
‘No, I do not. But as soon as I have seen you safely home, I will go and see James. I might be able to help.’
‘I am not going home.’
‘No? Where were you going?’
‘I was on my way to Downham Market to find Miss Battersby.’
‘Old Batters? Why?’
‘I need her advice.’
‘Oh, I see.’ He knew what she meant and questioned whether the elderly servant would offer wise counsel, but he did not say so. He grinned impishly. ‘Riding into a riot and being knocked senseless was preferable to choosing a husband, is that it?’
‘It is no laughing matter.’
‘The riot or choosing a husband?’
‘Both.’ Bella paused, wishing she did not feel so dizzy. ‘I don’t know what to do about it. Grandfather is not at all well, and if I defy him he might have a seizure. I am very fond of him…’
‘Of course you are, my dear, but he has been excessively unkind to you. While other young ladies of your age are being taken to Town for a Season, going to balls and soirées and picnics, you are stuck in the country with an old skinflint who thinks more of preserving his lands and estate than the sensibilities of his granddaughter.’
‘He is not a skinflint,’ she said, staunchly defending the Earl. ‘It is just that he is getting old and plagued by gout, which makes him crotchety. And he is worried about what will become of me when…’ She could not bring herself to end the sentence.
‘Loyal as always, my dear. I would not blame you if you damned the lot of us.’
‘It is not your fault.’
‘No, nor Edward’s either. Fond of old Teddy, aren’t you?’
She looked up at him, startled by his tone. ‘Yes, of course, but I am fond of you, too…’
‘Nice of you to say so,’ Robert said laconically as the sounds of rioting faded. It was now uncannily quiet and he assumed the men had moved on. Soon it would be safe to leave and he would have to take Bella home. It would be the end of their delightful tête-à-tête. ‘But I am persuaded there is a difference. He is the rightful heir and I do believe his lordship is being perverse just to amuse himself.’
‘I do not find it amusing.’
‘No, of course you don’t. But stands to reason that he expects you to choose Edward. There is no alternative.’
‘Edward is engaged.’
‘No, he has not yet offered.’
‘You do not mean he would repudiate it? Oh, Robert, I cannot believe that of him—he is an honourable man.’
‘A title and great wealth are powerful arguments. I am glad I do not have to make the choice.’
She said nothing for a minute while she thought about what he had said, which only served to convince him he had been right—it was only Edward’s previous attachment which was holding her back. ‘You should think of yourself sometimes, you know,’ he went on. ‘Why don’t you ask his lordship to give you a Season in Town, see you launched properly? You might meet someone else more to your liking. Someone eligible.’
‘Oh, that would be wonderful. But how could I go? There is no one to bring me out.’
‘Mama would do it,’ he said. ‘She is taking a house in Town for the Season.’
‘Grandfather would not let me go. He will not let me go anywhere until I have said which one of you I will marry.’
‘Then we are at a stand.’
Her head was clearing rapidly and she was suddenly possessed of an idea which was so audacious and yet so simple that she wondered why she had not thought of it before. ‘There is something you could do for me,’ she said slowly.
‘Anything, my dear Bella. Anything in my power.’
‘If Grandfather could be convinced I had made my choice, he would drop the subject.’
‘Naturally he would.’
‘Then, please, offer for me.’
‘Me?’ He could not believe his ears.
‘Oh, do not look so shocked. I do not mean it to be a real engagement, but if we could only pretend…’
He was puzzled and intrigued, too. ‘And what purpose would that serve?’
‘What I need is time and it would give me that and…and a little freedom to be myself for a few weeks. If we told his lordship we had come to an understanding, he would agree to let me pay a visit to your mama, wouldn’t he? If Cousin Henrietta would be so kind as to invite me. I truly cannot think properly while I am at Westmere. Being away might help.’
‘Bella, I do believe that knock on your head has addled your brains. Have you thought about how you will bring it to an end, even if I should agree? I’m not the sort to make and break engagements, you know. It’s just not the done thing. The whole ton will cut me dead as soon as it is known. I will not be received in any respectable hostess’s drawing room. And Lord Westmere will be furious, not to mention Edward.’
‘Why should he mind?’
‘Bella, think about it. He knows he should be the heir and we both agreed we would not play his lordship’s game.’
‘Please, Robert. We do not need to make a public announcement of our engagement, then your pride will not be hurt when it comes to an end.’
‘Then what is the point of it?’
‘To satisfy Grandfather.’
‘To gull him, you mean.’
‘There is no one else I can ask. James would certainly not take me to London. He wants a housekeeper and mother for his girls, nothing more. And if I went to London on the arm of Louis…’
‘Yes, I see your point,’ he said, smiling a little. ‘Be taken for one of his ladybirds, I shouldn’t wonder. Not the thing, not the thing at all.’
‘Then you will do it?’
‘Bella you are a dear girl but…’ He paused. The temptation to gamble with his own happiness was there, but he could not take it. He was sure the Earl meant Bella to marry Edward and that was only right and proper. Edward could give her so much more than he could and ensure that she remained at her beloved Westmere. It was simply the Earl’s way of bringing the two together. He would not consider Miss Mellish an obstacle. ‘Do you think you can ride now?’
She felt immeasurably saddened. For one brief moment she thought she had seen a way out, but he was right—it was a hare-brained scheme. ‘Yes, I think so.’
‘I will go and see if that boy has brought our horses.’ He took his arm from about her shoulders and left her to her muddled thoughts. And they were muddled. How could she have made such an outrageous suggestion? It had put Robert in an invidious position, and after he had been so kind to her, too. He was right, of course, it would not answer. But why could she not let it go? Why did she long to get away, to have a little enjoyment?
She stood up and wandered round the room. At the window she stopped and looked out. The street was quiet; there was no one in sight except Robert and the boy, who was leading Misty and the black stallion towards the inn. Robert was lucky it had not been stolen, she thought as she watched him give the boy a coin and take the horses from him. She went to the door as he approached. She was suddenly aware of how tall and muscular he was, how ruggedly handsome with his tanned face and laughing brown eyes. It unnerved her.
‘Is the riot over?’ she asked.
‘The boy says they’re all in the market-place, listening to the magistrates, but if they don’t get what they want they’ll be up in arms again, you can be sure. The sooner you are on your way home the better.’
‘But Miss Battersby and James…’
‘I will go and see how they are after I have seen you safely back at Westmere,’ he said, helping her to mount.
‘Thank you, Robert, but I do not need an escort,’ she said more sharply than she intended, though she was more angry with herself than with him. How could she have been so forward as to ask him to offer for her? It was enough to give him a complete aversion to her. ‘It is more important for you to find out what has happened. Fetch Ellen home. Bring her sister, too, if she wishes to come.’
‘Nevertheless, I insist. There is no knowing what you will meet up with on the way.’
‘Fustian! I have been riding these roads all my life.’
But it was only a token protest and they rode side by side in silence until they reached the outskirts of Westmere village. Here, the northernmost wall of the estate ran alongside the road. ‘I am almost home now, Captain,’ she said, stopping at a small gate. ‘I can take a short cut through the wood. Thank you for your timely rescue.’
It was a definite dismissal and Robert thought about arguing but changed his mind. Bella was an excellent rider and he was confident that she would come to no harm on Huntley land. Besides, he did not fancy going back to the leaden atmosphere of Westmere Hall and her silent reproaches because he had not seen fit to accede to her wishes. Secret engagement, indeed!
He dismounted and opened the gate for her to ride through. She smiled and bowed slightly from the waist as she passed him. He had no hat to remove but, instead, doffed an imaginary one, making her laugh. He watched until she was out of sight among the trees, then shut the gate and remounted. He did not think Ellen Battersby would leave her sister, but he would try to persuade her for Bella’s sake. And there was James, who might need his help. Suddenly, with the prospect of a little action, he felt more cheerful than he had done since he had left the battlefield at Waterloo.
The Westmere wood was the only substantial stand of trees in the area. It was here the Earl’s gamekeeper raised pheasants and partridges for his lordship’s sport, though he had not been out shooting for some time. Bella suspected that much of the game found its way into the local poachers’ capacious pockets. If the birds went to feed the hungry poor then she, for one, did not begrudge them. Primroses grew in abundance in the early spring and there might still be a few late blooms under the shelter of the trees where the ground was less soggy. She would gather a few for her room—perhaps their sweet new growth would cheer her.
She had dismounted and was stooping to pick a few of the delicate blooms when she became aware that she was bring watched. She looked up sharply. A tiny old woman in a ragged black cloak, green with age, stood watching her. She had, Bella noticed, the clearest, bluest eyes she had ever seen, incongruous in such a brown, wrinkled face.
‘Who are you?’ Bella demanded. She was about to add that the woman was trespassing on Huntley land but decided she was doing no harm and was probably, like her, out to gather flowers.
The woman ignored the question. ‘Want your fortune told, my dear?’ she asked, holding out a bony hand.
‘No, I do not think so, thank you.’
‘You should. You have a decision to make…’
Bella gasped. ‘How do you know that?’
‘I have the gift of second sight.’ In spite of her unprepossessing appearance, the old woman’s voice was surprisingly cultured. ‘Don’t you want to know what the future has in store for you if you make the right choice?’ She paused. ‘Or the wrong one…?’
‘I don’t know…’ She was wavering. What harm could it do?
‘Come with me.’ The old lady pointed to a tiny hovel which had once been a woodman’s dwelling, but there was no woodman now that Bella knew of.
‘You live there?’
‘I do.’ She held out her hand again. ‘Come, you can rest awhile before you return home.’ Without waiting for a reply, she took Misty’s reins, tied the horse to a tree and led the way to the cottage, which was surrounded by a patch of well-tended garden.
Bemused, Bella followed her, ducking her head under the low lintel of the door. Inside was a single room, with an earth floor and a tiny window. It was furnished with a table, a couple of chairs and a bed in a corner covered with a multicoloured quilt. A dresser against the wall held stacked crockery and also rows of jars containing she knew not what. Bunches of herbs hung from a beam to dry. There were more on the tiny window-sill. Everywhere was surprisingly clean.
‘Sit,’ her hostess commanded. ‘I will give you a herbal drink which will soothe you.’
It did not occur to Bella not to obey and she sat and watched as the tiny woman flitted about the room, picking up a bottle of this, a jar of that and adding some of the contents to a glass of clear water, stirring it with a thin stick. She had a kind of restless energy which defied her age. But how old was she? Fifty? Sixty? Seventy? More perhaps. She looked as though she had never had a square meal in her life, she was so thin. But her eyes! They were mesmerising.
‘Who are you?’ Bella asked. ‘How long have you been living here?’
‘How long?’ the woman echoed. ‘Time means nothing to me, means nothing to anyone. We are put on this earth for a short span to live and breathe, love, hate and procreate and then… Poof!’
‘Oh, how cynical! Surely there is more to it than that?’
‘Life is what you make of it,’ the woman said, sitting down opposite her. ‘Joy or sorrow—the choice is always there. Some make good choices, others bad.’ She paused to look at the girl. It was an intense regard, as if she were looking right inside her past the flesh and bones to the person inside them. ‘If I had made a good choice, I would not be here now, neither would you.’
‘What do you mean, I would not be here?’
The woman laughed. ‘Why, if I was not here, you would not be here talking to me, would you? Perhaps it is fate.’ She paused and handed Bella the glass. ‘Here, drink this.’
‘What is it?’
‘A few herbs, meant to soothe. I make it from a recipe the good nuns taught me.’
Bella sipped the cloudy liquid. It had a bitter-sweet taste but was not unpleasant. ‘You are a nun?’
‘No, I was never devout enough. I questioned things too much. The nuns and I parted when I came to my senses.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘No. It is of no consequence to you, who are young and innocent of any ill intent. But beware of others. You will be sorely tried before you find happiness.’
‘But I will find happiness?’ Bella wanted desperately to be reassured.
‘Give me your hand.’
Bella held out her hand and it was taken in a firm grasp and turned palm upwards. She watched as the woman appeared to study it. ‘Do I not have to cross your palm with silver first?’
‘No. I do not make forecasts for money.’
‘Then how do you live?’
‘Curiosity is one of your traits, I see.’
‘You see it in my hand?’
She laughed. ‘No, I hear it on your tongue. Now, let me see. This burden you have to bear…’ She was not looking at Bella’s palm, but directly into her eyes.
‘You know of it?’
‘Only that there is one. You may tell me of it if you wish. It will go no further than these four walls. And I may be able to advise you.’
Bella longed to confide in someone, but this curious woman was a stranger she had never seen before. How could she admit what was troubling her? On the other hand, a stranger might be more objective. ‘I have to choose a husband,’ she said.
‘I see nothing burdensome about that. For most young ladies, it is the best time of their lives, watching their swains making fools of themselves.’
Bella smiled ruefully. ‘My choice is limited.’
‘That is more than most young ladies have.’
‘This is different.’
Bella hesitated. ‘I do not think I want any of then. I mean, I am not sure… Oh, I am so confused. Besides, I do not think any of them will offer and I shall think the poorer of them if they do.’
‘Oh, a conundrum. I like conundrums. How will you solve it?’
‘I do not know.’
‘You must be careful in whom you put your trust.’
‘It is not a question of trust. I trust them all. It is a question of—’
‘Happiness?’ the woman finished for her, smiling a little. ‘You think everyone has a right to happiness?’
‘Why not? If it harms no one else.’
‘Ah, but there’s the rub. Every selfish act harms someone.’
‘I should hate to be accused of selfishness…’
‘On the other hand, to give in to moral blackmail might be unselfish, but it would be foolish in the extreme.’
‘Moral blackmail? I do not understand.’
‘Oh, I think you do.’ She paused. ‘There is money involved?’
‘Yes, I believe so.’
‘And a title.’
Bella looked up sharply. Did the woman know who she was? Now she wished she had not spoken. ‘I do not believe you saw that in my palm.’
‘No, I did not.’
‘But you know who I am?’
‘Then you have the advantage of me.’
‘Do tell me your name.’
‘So that you may go to his lordship or his lordship’s steward and have me turned off his property…’
‘No, I will not betray you.’
‘If you don’t, you will be the first Huntley not to do so.’
‘What do you mean? Do you have a grievance against the family?’
‘No,’ she retorted quickly. ‘I am a silly old woman—take no note of what I say.’
Her retraction was so swift that Bella did not believe her, and for a moment she forgot her own dilemma in wondering what the Huntleys could possibly have done to the woman. But she knew that if she asked, she would not be told. She was beginning to wish she had not mentioned her troubles at all. ‘You would not speak to anyone of what I have said to you?’
‘Who would I tell? I see few people and those I do see are more interested in their own problems. They come for cures or favours or love potions…’
‘There are no such things as love potions.’
‘You may believe what you will—others would not agree with you. And as for William Huntley, what the eye doesn’t see the heart cannot grieve over.’
‘I will not tell him,’ Bella said, surprised that the old woman should speak of the Earl in those almost contemptuous terms.
‘Do you feel calmer now?’
‘Yes, a little.’ In fact, she felt rather sleepy, almost as if she were dreaming. What had been in that concoction she had drunk? Why had she swallowed it without demur?
‘Good. It is time for you to go. If you take my advice, you will wait and see who offers and then make up your mind. But take your time, the old man is not about to die. Keep them dangling.’ The old lady smiled, and the smile lit her face and made her seem years younger. Bella could imagine that she had once been beautiful. ‘It might be quite diverting.’
Bella left her and walked slowly to her horse. As she mounted, she turned back, but although the hovel was there, nestling among the trees, there was no sign of the strange old woman. But surprisingly she did feel calmer, if not cheerful. Witch or not, she was right—there was no point in jumping her fences before she reached them.
She left the trees and crossed the park to rejoin the drive, where she stopped to gather her wits and shake out her skirts, so that when she approached the house she looked like a young lady back from a gentle hack. She had achieved nothing by her flight. Her problems were still there, still insurmountable, and if her grandfather ever heard about her attempted ride to Downham Market, he would be more determined than ever to see her safely married, and the Comtesse would brand her a hoyden.
She went up to her room and sat on the bed. Her nerves were on edge, she had a terrible headache from the bump on her head and there was a bruise on her side which hurt when she moved. She would much rather have had her supper in her room, but in less than an hour she would be expected to be the perfect hostess, bright and cheerful. Neither could she help thinking about her grandfather’s impossible ultimatum. Somehow she had to avoid making a hasty decision. What had that strange woman in the woods said? ‘Keep them dangling’?
But they weren’t dangling, were they? Not one of them viewed the prospect of marriage to her with any pleasure, not even Robert. He had been unexpectedly sympathetic, but not enough to fall in with her plan. And yet it was a good plan.
Reluctantly she rose and changed for supper, putting on a pale blue silk gown, which had a full skirt and tiny puff sleeves and a neckline filled with ruched lace. It was hardly the height of fashion but, then, her grandfather disapproved of the flimsy apparel which was the latest mode. Slipping her feet into satin pumps, she made her way down to the kitchen to see that supper would be ready on time.
‘Everything is going along nicely, Miss Huntley,’ Martha told her.
‘I believe Miss Battersby might be back and bringing her sister so, please, lay two extra covers.’
Returning to the drawing room, she took a book from a shelf to while away the time until supper and flicked idly through its pages. It was a small volume of poetry written by William Harrison, a young fenland poet who was making a name for himself locally, though his style was not one to commend itself to devotees of Tennyson or Shelley. There was nothing in it to bring her relief, but one short verse caught her attention. It was entitled ‘Clod’s Complaint’.
When war throughout all Europe reigned,
We farmers lived in clover
But now the friendly fiend is chained,
Our golden age is over.
Grant, O fate, ere ’tis too late
When men have had a blowing
War may revive, that we may thrive
And corn may pay for growing.
Bella smiled, thinking of James. He might almost have written it himself, except that he did not have a poetic bone in his body. And, on reflection, it was not amusing to wish for war as the answer to the country’s ills.
She looked up as Louis wandered into the room. He was dressed for evening in black satin breeches, white stockings and a brocade coat decorated with rows of silver frogging. The frills of his shirt cuffs hung over his hands and his white muslin cravat was tied in some complicated knot which looked as though it might choke him.
‘Ah, Cousin Isabella,’ he said, putting up his quizzing glass. ‘All alone?’
She shut the book with a sigh. ‘As you see.’
‘Good.’ He dropped the glass and sat down beside her on the sofa. ‘Hoping to see you alone. Need to speak to you.’
Her heart sank. ‘I am listening.’
‘Been talking to Mama about this idiotish plan of his lordship’s.’
‘Your mama has already spoken to me, Louis.’
‘Yes, told me so. Said you were in accord.’
‘Yes, we are,’ she said. ‘I do not expect you to offer for me.’
‘That’s the thing,’ he said. ‘Can’t see it will serve. But…’ He paused and searched her face. ‘Pretty filly, no doubt of it. Pay for dressing.’
‘Why, thank you, Louis,’ she said, wondering why he spoke in that clipped way, as if he did not know how to string a whole sentence together.
‘But if his lordship is determined on it…’
‘Oh, he is, but Edward does not think he can legally do it.’
‘Costly,’ he said. ‘Going through the courts, I mean.’
‘Got a solution.’
‘Then, please, tell me, for there is nothing I would like better than a solution.’
‘Like living at Westmere, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ she admitted doubtfully, wondering what was coming next. ‘I have lived here all my life. But if I have to move, I shall do so.’
‘No need for that. We can come to an accommodation, a mariage de convenance. You agree to stay in the country where you belong and don’t interfere with me, and we shall get along famously.’
She was so dismayed that she hardly noticed that he had produced two complete sentences which sounded as though his mother had drilled him. ‘But, Louis, how will that serve? Grandfather wishes for an heir…’
‘Do my duty by you, naturally.’ He sat back with a sigh of satisfaction. ‘So what do you say? Make a marriage of it, shall we?’
She knew she was supposed to answer something to the effect that she was very sensible of the honour he did her but she could not accept his kind offer, but the words would not come. She was appalled. This was worse than James’s clumsy attempt to propose.
‘You mean I am to be the uncomplaining wife, hold house here and produce offspring as often as you deem necessary, while you continue to act the bachelor? No, thank you, Louis.’
‘Plenty of fripperies when I come into my inheritance. All you need, not that you’ll need a great deal, living as you do, quietly in the country…’
That was more of his mother. If Bella was capable of hate, she would certainly have hated Elizabeth, Comtesse de Courville, at that moment. ‘Louis, much as I love Westmere, I cannot marry you,’ she said.
He stood up. ‘Persuaded you don’t mean it. Too much to lose. You’ll come about when you have had time to think about it.’
‘She doesn’t need to think about it,’ said a voice at the door.
Bella looked up to see Robert leaning lazily against the jamb. How long had he been there? How much had he heard?
‘Nothing to do with you,’ Louis said, flushing scarlet. ‘Not eligible.’
‘Indeed I am,’ he said, sauntering into the room. ‘And Miss Huntley has already accepted my offer.’
‘I don’t believe you, it’s a hum.’
‘Not at all. We were about to see his lordship and tell everyone over supper.’ He turned from Louis to Bella, his brown eyes dancing with mischief. ‘Isn’t that so, my love?’
She was so relieved, she could have cried. Instead, she smiled. ‘Yes. I was about to explain that to Louis, but he did not afford me the opportunity.’
Louis was obviously furious. He rose from his seat and advanced on Robert. ‘Toad-eater! Jack-at-warts! Flat! You don’t suppose that marrying the chit will give you the title and inheritance, do you?’
‘You evidently did.’
‘That’s different. If his lordship is so set on her marrying the heir, then I’m happy to oblige him and Miss Huntley. But you’re ineligible, whatever you may think. I shall fight you…’
‘Oh, Louis, no!’ Bella cried. ‘Please, do not call him out.’
Robert’s smile did not waver. ‘Happy to accommodate you, cousin, but what the Earl would say to such a proceeding I do not know.’
‘Wouldn’t dirty my hands on you. Fight in the courts.’
‘You may do as you please, sir, though I may tell you that my offer for Miss Huntley is not dependent on her sitting at Westmere in splendid isolation, nor, I may say, on hopes of a title or a legacy. It is not I you will have to fight but the Earl of Westmere.’
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