"Persons of our rank," declared the Dowager, quivering with outrage at the mere idea, "do not fall in love! They may, if they are that way inclined, come to feel some affection for their spouses -- I have known it to happen, even in the best of circles, though I myself consider it extremely vulgar -- but -- are you listening to me, Beatrice? Eleanor? -- I repeat, persons of rank do not, under any circumstances, fall in love!"
The two young women standing in front of her exchanged speaking glances but knew better than to argue, so made noises to signify they were paying attention.
The old lady rapped her cane on the floor by her chair to emphasize this point and added with monumental scorn, "Nor do persons of our rank read sentimental tales about lowbred persons and their amours! They leave such absurdities for menials and governesses who know no better!" Her eyes flashed with scorn as she surveyed her niece, Beatrice, and her granddaughter, Eleanor, both in severe disgrace for being caught reading a novel together.
Beatrice suppressed a sigh and schooled her face into the calm expression she could summon up at will. Heaven knew she'd had enough years to practice that since her mother's death, when she was brought to live here with her father's much older sister. She shot a quick glance sideways, but saw with relief that Eleanor was staring past the Dowager out at the gardens and didn't seem about to argue.
As she looked back at her aunt, another worry surfaced. What would happen to her if the old lady died? The Dowager had appeared so frail lately. Beatrice shut off that thought resolutely and tried to pay attention to what her aunt was saying.
"And both you girls come from good stock, so..."
On the other side of the room, Eleanor dug her fingers into her palm to distract herself. She was still filled with anger at seeing her enthralling tale thrown on the fire by her grandmother. Now she and Beatrice would never know whether poor Melissa managed to escape from the toils of the evil Count and be reunited with Gervaise, her childhood sweetheart!
And what's more, Eleanor decided, simmering with rebellion as the lecture continued, she had every intention of falling in love one day, whatever her grandmother said, and had already begun to inspect the unattached men she met with extreme interest and care. Bea said that was not the way you did it, but Eleanor didn't suffer from her young aunt's shyness and had every intention of studying the field of candidates. Not that there were many young men here in the depths of Hampshire, and sadly, none of the ones she'd met so far had troubled her dreams in the slightest.
She caught a worried glance from across the room and winked at Bea, but didn't defy or contradict her grandmother, in whose charge she had been for nine years. One didn't get one's own way by outright opposition to her ladyship. In fact, poor Bea rarely got her way at all, but Eleanor was never quite sure whether that was because she was submissive by nature or because she didn't care enough to dispute Lady Marguerite Graceover's authority.
She herself was cast in a more resolute mould, Eleanor felt complacently, stealing a quick glance sideways to admire her reflection in the mirror over the fireplace. The new way of arranging her hair looked very well, but this gown was far too plain. White muslin, for heaven's sake, as if she were still a child instead of a mature woman of nineteen!
Well, she had no intention of allowing her grandmother to plan her whole life for her, let alone choose her husband. Why, Grandmamma had spoken approvingly only last week about second cousin Maria's engagement to a quite elderly nobleman, who was thirty-two if he was a day. Just because his family had come over with the Conqueror!
Eleanor knew her own future was presently under consideration, because she'd just happened to overhear her grandmother talking to the family lawyer recently about marriage settlements. Unfortunately, one of the maids had come along at that moment and she'd to move away from the door. But there was no doubt she would be a rich prize for someone and she meant to make the most of that, whatever Bea said. Only - that would mean leaving her beloved Satherby to live with a husband and she hated the thought of doing so.
The Dowager paused for breath, then continued the attack. "Pray tell me, Beatrice, since you are the older, why you were reading such - such vulgarities?"
Eleanor watched an agonized expression creep over Bea's face, so rushed to the rescue. "We only wanted to see what such books were like, Grandmamma. How is one to know about love and - and such things, if one cannot discuss them or read about them?"
"You have only to ask me. I can always tell you exactly what is or is not suitable for a Graceover of Satherby Abbey." She saw a stubborn expression on her granddaughter's face and added sharply, "I forbid you, do you hear, absolutely forbid you to read such housemaids' trash again! Love! Pah! Love is only for the lower classes, who can afford to become quite ridiculous under its influence! Or for those fools who have forgotten their station in life. Fools like my younger brother Warwick."
This was one of the Dowager's favourite cautionary tales and was regularly trotted out and brandished before them as a warning. "Look what happened to him! Married for love, dead before forty, wife and child left living in poverty. It is I who have had to provide for my poor niece! My brother's fate is a lesson to us all."
Beatrice was alarmed at how white her aunt had gone, her lips a thin blue-tinged line in a face like wrinkled parchment. She exchanged worried glances with Eleanor and shook her head in warning to say nothing more.
After a few gasping breaths, the Dowager abandoned the rest of her customary diatribe and ended with the same old warning, "To marry without money is the height of improvidence, as I have told you many times before, have I not, Beatrice? And why are you both standing there like maidservants waiting for an order? Go and sit down on the sofa like gentlefolk. You know I cannot abide people looming over me."
Beatrice nodded and obeyed, tugging Eleanor across the room with her. She had some sympathy with the Dowager's views, since she and her mother had lived in extreme poverty for a while after her father's death and she had never forgotten what it felt like to go to bed hungry. Or to be without the means to pay the doctor's bills.
"Mind you," continued the Dowager, in the softer tones of one determined to be fair, "Beatrice could perfectly well have found herself some curate or gentleman farmer to marry who wouldn't care about her lack of dowry. She's a Dencey, after all. My family's pedigree goes back even further than the Graceovers' and we can hold our heads up in any circles." She squinted at her niece, as if seeing her for the first time. "She's pretty enough to attract some gentleman's attention, too, were she to set her mind to it."
Beatrice picked up her embroidery and made a determined stab at it with her needle. Over the years, she'd grown accustomed to her role as the Dowager Lady Graceover's unpaid companion and had developed a genuine affection for her aunt; but once in a while she could not help thinking wistfully how pleasant it would be to marry and have a home of one's very own - and even, perhaps, to have a family. She'd always loved children, which was why she'd welcomed the chance to help raise Eleanor, who had been orphaned at the age of nine. But that wasn't the same as having a child of one's own. Or a husband.
"In future, kindly do not forget what you owe to the Family!" the Dowager said, in what was, for her, quite a mild tone. "I have better things planned for you, Eleanor, than falling in love! You'll be the last of the Graceovers, more's the pity, but you're rich enough to seek a husband among the True Nobility."
Eleanor perked up and leaned forward, eagerness in every line of her body. "What exactly have you got planned for me, Grandmamma? May I not know?"
But this was going too far for the Dowager. "No, you may not know, miss! I'll tell you what you need to know when the time comes. And what are you doing lolling about on the sofa like that? If you have nothing better to occupy yourself with, you may go and practice your music. I wish to have a word with Beatrice in private."
Eleanor breathed deeply and rose to her feet. It was no use arguing with her grandmother when the old lady was in this mood. As she turned to leave, she rolled her eyes at Bea, then composed her expression and left.
Still feeling thoughtful, she made her way to the Blue Salon downstairs, where her favourite piano had been placed out of her ladyship's hearing, since only inconsiderate persons inflicted the sound of their practice upon the ears of their families. There she sat down and began to play, for she loved music and could lose herself in it for hours.
But she kept wondering what was happening upstairs. Clearly her grandmother was seriously considering the question of her marriage. But to whom? She wouldn't marry someone she did not like, however well-connected his family, on that point she was quite determined.
In London a gentleman of high enough rank to satisfy even the Dowager and handsome enough to delight the most romantically-minded young lady as well, got ready to go to a small, pre-season ball designed to introduce some of this year's crop of young ladies to the ways of the ton. In the middle of tying his neckcloth, he paused, scowled at himself in the mirror and swore softly, tossing aside the piece of mangled cloth. "No, definitely not."
Turning round, he stared at his valet as if he had never seen him before, then said harshly, "I've changed my mind. I shall not be going out tonight, after all, Beamish."
"But sir - "
"That will be all, thank you."
Beamish breathed deeply, but said nothing. He picked up the pile of mangled neckcloths and walked out with his usual measured tread.
When the valet had left, the gentleman flung himself down in the comfortable armchair in front of the fire and stared blindly into the flames. If he set one foot in that ballroom tonight, everyone in the ton would know that he was seriously looking for a wife this season. And did he really want that? No, he did not! He loathed being a focus of gossip, absolutely loathed it.
The trouble was, his mother was growing very insistent that he marry. She had driven up from Bath to Hertfordshire to visit him twice in the past year, and the last time she had made him promise to spend at least part of the coming season in London.
He stretched his tall body with a sigh, feeling a sudden longing sweep through him for his home in the country, for a canter through the woods and a fresh breeze on his face. Then he sighed and scowled down at his feet, forcing himself to face facts. It was his duty to marry. His absolute and inescapable duty. His mother was right about that.
But somehow, he'd never met a lady who didn't bore him to death after a few encounters. They were all so obliging, so breathlessly eager to please him that it made him feel angry. If he'd said the moon was purple, they'd have agreed. And they'd be just as eager to please any other gentleman of fortune, anything to get themselves a wealthy husband. He gave a snort of bitter laughter. Oh, he was a fool, expecting the impossible. Persons of his rank did not marry for love, but for sound social and financial reasons. Why should he be any different?
He jerked to his feet and went to pour himself a brandy, then slumped down in the chair again with a growl of annoyance and stared down into the rich amber liquid. He was three and thirty, and his mother was right, damn her. He had to marry. He raised the glass in a mocking toast, "To my future Lady Wife!"
He wouldn't go to tonight's ball, though, but would wait for the season proper to start and proceed with caution, drawing as little attention to himself as possible.
He raised the glass in another toast to his reflection in a mirror. "Here's to the last of the Serles!" He would suit himself as well in choosing a wife, he decided. He didn't want just a woman of breeding and fortune, but one of a pleasant nature and with a reasonable intelligence. Surely there must be some women around who didn't use their beauty as a weapon, live for gossip and fashion, and regard men merely as providers of heirs and money?
"Ha!" he said a little later, as he refilled his glass, spilling some brandy on the polished surface. "Maybe I should look at the ugly ones this time. At least they'd be grateful!" He drank to that as well.
Beamish peeped in a little later, worried that his master had not come down for dinner. He gaped in amazement at the sight of the overturned glass and the figure sprawled in the chair, sleeping soundly. It wasn't at all like Mr Serle to dip into the brandy. Shaking his head in surprise and disapproval both, he woke his master and persuaded him, not without difficulty, to go to bed.
"She's pushing him too hard," he muttered as he closed the bedchamber door. "There's going to be trouble."
When Eleanor had left the room, the Dowager fidgeted and cleared her throat a couple of times, then snapped, "Put that sewing down and pay attention to me, Beatrice! This is important!" There was a pause, then, "It's time we were thinking of the chit's future, but I'm out of touch with the younger set." She scowled across the room. "Don't know who's who in the ton any more."
Beatrice was thoroughly mystified. "Why should you need to keep in touch with the younger set, Aunt Marguerite?"
The Dowager ignored this, as she ignored all questions she didn't wish to answer. "And I'm too old to do another Season, more's the pity." She glared at her twisted hands, then folded them in her lap and fixed a hawk-like gaze upon her niece. "So you will just have to go up to London for me."
"Me? Go to London!"
"Yes, you, ninny! Who else is there? No men left in the family now, are there? So we've only got ourselves to rely on. Ah, we women are weak vessels!" She attempted to look frail and ill-used, but only succeeded in looking even more ferocious than usual.
"But Johanna lives in London. Surely your daughter would be the best person to deal with any business you wish conducted there?" Beatrice protested. They'd occasionally visited Johanna in town until the last couple of years, though they'd never gone about in society during those visits, because the Dowager said the ton was full of nobodies these days and she had better things to do than say how-de-do to farmers and shopkeepers.
The Dowager's scowl deepened. "I shan't trust her judgment when it comes to finding a husband for Eleanor."
"F-finding a husband for Eleanor?"
"Stop repeatin' what I say! Makes you sound like a sheep." Marguerite Graceover looked down at her lap for a moment, sighed and said more temperately, "I shan't ask Johanna to attend to this for me! Look at the sort of men she allowed her own daughters to marry! Johnny-come-latelies, both of them. A mere baronet! And the grandson of a nabob! What's the world coming to when a descendant of the Graceovers marries a tea-merchant?"
This connection had rankled with her for several years, Beatrice knew, though in the eyes of the world, Johanna's daughters had done well for themselves and the gentlemen in question were not only rich, but pleasant-natured and had made their wives very happy. "Though you'll stay with Johanna when you're in London, of course," the Dowager added. "You'll need her as a chaperone, and she knows everyone, whether they're worth knowing or not."
"But I - "
"Stop interrupting! How am I to get my tale told if you keep stopping me? I'll write and tell Johanna what I want and to whom you're to be introduced. Then you can do the Season and look 'em all over for me."
By now, Beatrice was feeling quite bewildered. "Look who over, Aunt?"
"I've just been tellin' you! Young people don't know how to listen to their elders any more! Why am I always surrounded by ditherers and half-wits? I'm talking about the younger set! The ton. Or what passes for the ton nowadays. Persons of rank, mind, not nobodies and tea-merchants! You'll have to go and look 'em over for me! How else are we to find a husband for Eleanor?"
"But I can't - "
"Of course you can! I'll give you a list of acceptable families, then you'll only have to sort out one or two possible husbands and invite them down here to meet Eleanor. I'll do the rest. We should be able to get the knot tied before the end of the year - if you will only bustle around a bit, that is!"
"But Aunt, really, I couldn't possibly - "
The old face grew grim. "I'm not lettin' the chit loose on the town without me to keep an eye on her. She's not only pretty, she's far too rich for her own good. And too impetuous. But innocent, of course. I've seen to that. Brought her up properly, at least."
Beatrice wondered what her ladyship would say if she knew about some of the exploits which the innocent chit had been up to lately, the little excursions into the village unescorted, the flirting at social gatherings just for practice. "But surely, Aunt Marguerite, Johanna could - she could - "
The cane thumped down again. "Johanna could not! She encourages the attentions of upstarts and mushrooms! I want better breeding than that for my granddaughter."
She bowed her head for a moment, then looked at Beatrice and for once there was no hauteur in those knowing old eyes. "Thing is, the doctor don't think I'll last much longer, Bea. Get a pain in my chest if I do much nowadays. There's nothin' he can do about it. A year at most, he thinks. M'heart's failing."
"Oh, Aunt, I'm so sorry!" Beatrice moved quickly across the room to kneel by her aunt's chair and clasp her hand.
The hand squeezed hers once, patted it and was withdrawn. "I believe you mean that, for which I thank you, Bea, but I'm five and seventy, and I've had a good long life, so I'm not complaining." She looked across the room into some distance only she could see. "The pity of it is that with two healthy sons I didn't get even one grandson to carry on the name. That idiot, William Herforth, will inherit. No, he died, didn't he? I keep forgetting. All the fault of that stupid will! How my husband came to write it, I'll never know!" Her eyes closed for a moment, then she jerked upright. "What was I saying?"
These slight lapses of concentration were another thing which was beginning to worry Beatrice.
"You were talking about the Herforths, Aunt."
"Yes, so I was. It's Herforth's son who'll be inheriting, isn't it? What's the fellow's name again?"
"Yes. Crispin! Did you ever hear such a ridiculous name? Crispin!" she repeated with awful scorn. "It's a name for actors or dancing masters."
"It's only a word," Beatrice said softly.
The Dowager's mouth worked, as if she were swallowing something distasteful. "I swore no Herforth would set foot across the threshold till I was gone, but I've changed my mind, had to change my mind. I've invited that Crispin fellow to come and stay here for a while, because he needs to learn how to manage the estate. Got to make sure he's up to snuff socially, as well." Her voice trailed away again and for a moment or two she dozed, as old people will, for the anger had exhausted her.
Beatrice went back to the sofa and sat on in silence, her thoughts in too much turmoil to go and face Eleanor yet. Once or twice she looked across at her aunt and felt tears come into her eyes. If her ladyship's heart were indeed failing, she had good reason to be worried about Eleanor's future. Her husband, who had died twenty years before, had left his wife lifelong use of and control over the estate, which was then to pass to the next male heir.
With two sons living when he wrote the will, he could perhaps be forgiven for expecting that one of them or their descendants would inherit, but although both had survived him, neither had lived beyond the age of thirty and neither had sired a living son, so now the estate would pass to Crispin Herforth, not Eleanor.
And there was another problem to be considered - what would happen to Beatrice herself when her aunt died? It was something she had worried about occasionally, but now it had suddenly become of immediate concern. She had no other relatives and not a penny to call her own. What was to become of her? Surely her aunt would make some sort of provision for her?
In Hertfordshire, Crispin Herforth read the letter which had just been delivered by a groom from Satherby in growing indignation.
Since you are heir to Satherby and in view of my increasing years, I have decided that it is necessary for you to become acquainted with your future inheritance. I shall therefore expect you to make time during the next few weeks for an extended visit here.
Please advise me of the date of your arrival and do not delay in setting matters in train.
"I shan't go," he told the spaniel snoozing in front of the fire. "She refused even to receive my father when he asked to visit Satherby, so why should I go to her now?"
But as the day passed and he rode round his own much smaller estate, the Dowager's words kept coming back to him "in view of my increasing years," she had said. Did that mean she was ill? Dying even?
"So what?" he told his favourite mare. "I've never even met the woman and I don't want to, either."
But what if she were dying? How would he reconcile a refusal to visit her with his conscience?
Not until he was getting ready for bed did he admit the other reason for going. Satherby Abbey itself. To inherit such a place was a sacred trust. So many people depended on you for their livelihood, so many generations of the family before you had given their lives to it. You simply could not turn your back on that.
It was two weeks, however, before he bowed to the inevitable and his reply was equally terse and to the point.
Dear Lady Graceover
I thank you for your kind invitation. I am not at present at liberty to visit you, but shall hope to be free later in the year.
He smiled as he signed it and remained in a good mood all day as he made certain arrangements. He would do this his own way. You did not walk blindly into a lion's den. Or a lioness's, either.
The Dowager woke up with a start, coughed and spluttered for a moment, blinked at her niece, then reverted to her topic. "Have to settle you both, but Eleanor's more of a worry, d'you see? She's a considerable heiress, even if she can't have this estate. Don't want fortune hunters buzzin' around. Can't rely on a gal of her age makin' a wise decision."
"And it's only fair to leave you properly provided for as well, Bea." She saw that her niece was looking embarrassed. "Don't think I've forgotten you. I couldn't look for a husband for you before, because I needed you to help me bring up the chit. Too old to do it all myself. Never had much patience with children, anyway. And you did a good job, as well, young as you were."
Beatrice smiled. "That was a pleasure for me, as you know."
"Yes. You're a born mother. Y'should have had your own family by now. It's my fault you haven't. But it's not too late to amend that."
Beatrice flushed. "I'm nearly thirty, Aunt. Past thinking of such things."
"Twenty-eight last month. Don't exaggerate!" Rap! went the silver-headed cane that always stood ready by the chair. "Now! Hold your tongue and listen! I've fixed it all up with the lawyers and settled enough money on you to get yourself a husband of whose breeding we needn't be ashamed."
"I don't care to have you buy me a husband, Aunt! I should be grateful for a small annuity, certainly, but - "
"Hoity-toity!" The Dowager's face softened. "You'll do as you're told because it's my dying wish to see you settled and because I know you'd like to have a family of your own."
Beatrice shook her head, not wishing anyone to buy her a husband.
"Please, Beatrice! I beg of you! Please do this last thing for me!"
Never once had Beatrice heard this autocratic old termagant plead with anyone for anything. "But Aunt, I..." Her voice tailed away and she could only look beseechingly at her relative.
The sunken eyes stared at her unwinkingly. The body might be failing, but the mind inside it was still as sharp as ever. "Didn't think to hear me plead, did you? And I didn't think I'd have to do it, either. Just goes to show. Death is a great leveller." She paused, then asked sharply, "What's got into you, girl? What have I asked you to do that sticks in your gullet?"
"I don't - I cannot like the idea of - of having a husband bought for me - someone who will only be interested in my money."
Her ladyship cackled loudly, sounding more like an ancient parrot than a respected member of the upper classes. "Is that all?"
"Isn't it enough?"
"No! It ain't enough! What other way is there for persons like us to make a proper match? Whether you admit it or not, marriage is a business transaction. And besides," she glared at Beatrice, angry for being made to continue pleading, "I can't die with you on my conscience, girl! I should have found you a husband years ago."
Beatrice shook her head. "Aunt, I just can't like the idea!"
The old eyes narrowed in cunning and the voice grew softly persuasive. "Eleanor will need you even more once I'm gone! And you'll be able to look after her much better if you're a married woman, not to mention looking after yourself, too!" She clicked her tongue in exasperation. "For heaven's sake, child, a woman's business in life is to marry, and marry as well as she can."
"I shall need to think about it, Aunt. I can't just - just snap up your offer straight away. I can't!"
Her ladyship nodded. "Yes, you ought to take the time to think about something so important. It's what I'd do myself in your place. Come here!"
When Beatrice approached her chair again, she pulled her niece's head down toward her own and planted on the soft cheek the first and last kiss she would ever give her. "You're a good girl, in spite of your mother. It's the Dencey blood coming out in you, I dare say. Quality will always tell." She patted her niece's cheek, then pushed her away again. "Go and do your thinking, then! But send my maid in to me first. And not a word about this to Eleanor, mind! Promise."
Beatrice's thoughts were in a turmoil as she took refuge in her own bedchamber. When Eleanor knocked on the door and demanded admittance, she made no move to open it, simply calling out that she needed a rest.
"But Bea - "
"Go away, Eleanor. I'll talk to you later."
She had locked the door, so she ignored a renewed tattoo on its venerable panels and plumped down in front of the fire. One of the few indulgences she allowed herself was to sit on the rug and toast her stockinged toes. The Dowager would have been horrified at such undignified behaviour, but Beatrice had long ago found that staring into dancing flames was a good way to sort out one's thoughts. She had needed to do that many times when she had first arrived at Satherby, a grieving and inexperienced girl of seventeen, with no understanding of her father's world and only a lawyer's assurance that she would find a home there.
Well, she had come to terms with many things since coming to live at Satherby, so she supposed she could come to terms with this as well. But, she decided, frowning into the embers, although she might not be able to find a husband whom she could love, as her parents had loved, she would insist on having some say as to whom she married. She couldn't marry someone whom she didn't both respect and like. That would be her one condition in agreeing to her ladyship's wishes.
A little later, Eleanor banged on the door again. "Are you ready for dinner, Bea?"
"Oh, sorry! I'm not changed yet. You go down without me."
With a shock Bea realized that she had allowed the fire to burn down low and was feeling thoroughly chilled. She put on more wood, then lit the candles with a taper, before changing her clothes and tidying her hair in time for the dinner gong. She didn't bother to summon the housemaid whose duty it was to wait on her if required. She'd never grown used to servants hovering over her while she performed her intimate tasks.
"I'll have to do it," she told her reflection in the mirror, "but the choice of husband will be mine, not my aunt's!" If anyone wanted her. Two clear hazel eyes stared back at her in a face anyone else would have considered remarkably pretty, but which Beatrice rather despised, for the full redness of her lips and the brilliance of her eyes were, to a mind schooled by long years with the Dowager, rather theatrical in appearance.
She smoothed the creamy skin of her cheek with one fingertip and turned to study herself from the side, then shrugged her shoulders. She supposed she'd have no trouble in finding some sort of husband if she had a generous dowry, but oh dear, she didn't want things to change. She had come to terms with her role in life and was quietly happy at Satherby, enjoying the beauties of the changing seasons in the country and the power she had to improve the lot of the poorer tenants on the estate. That meant a lot to her.
But when the Dowager died, everything would change. Her aunt was right. Beatrice needed to face that fact and prepare for it. She smoothed her full silken skirts, shaking the pale blue frills around her feet into place, then picking up a warm shawl to counter the draughts that abounded in this ancient house. No use worrying about the future now, when she hadn't even sealed her bargain with the Dowager. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door.
I can do it, she told herself firmly, as she walked down the stairs. Of course I can. My aunt would never expect me to marry someone I despised.