In the village of Paxton in Northern Hertfordshire, a cluster of somberly clad mourners stood in the churchyard near a newly dug grave. Their heads were bowed in prayer, their backs turned against a sharp northerly wind and a misty November rain. The Reverend Swinton had left his prayer book behind today in deference to the weather and now recited the burial service from memory.
When the rector finished, the family of the late Lord Hargrave turned away and filed through a narrow gate in the cemetery fence. Several of them spoke quietly to the rector and then, since there was no carriage waiting, moved off down the lane toward their home, nearly a mile distant.
Stephen Hargrave, now the new baron at the age of nineteen, silently offered his mother his arm as he raised a shabby umbrella to shield her from the weather. Close behind this pair followed the late baron's three other children--his younger son Miles and his two daughters, Caroline and Patience.
The Hargraves' home lay northwest of the village so they were forced to walk into the wind, the rain steadily increasing as they progressed. They walked briskly, warmed by the exercise and anticipating a dry, if not particularly warm, home awaiting them. Arriving at Paxton Hall, they hurried inside and stood dripping onto the stone floor of the entry hall as they relieved each other of sodden cloaks.
Lady Hargrave was a fair, handsome woman in her early forties. Her children closely resembled her, all four being blue-eyed and blond. Patience had brilliant, golden hair, while Caroline's was lighter, tending toward flaxen when exposed to the sun. The boys were blond too, but of a darker shade. Both were tall and slender, each blessed with a pleasant countenance.
"Where can Wilcox be?" Stephen wondered, his arms full of wet clothing.
His question was answered immediately as an old man in an outmoded butler's uniform shuffled forward. "Here I am, Mr. Stephen . . . I should say, your lordship." He took the wet things young Lord Hargrave held. "Mr. Birmingham is in the library, my lord. He arrived while you were at the church and said he would be content to wait. I gave him some tea, my lady," he added.
"That was thoughtful of you, Wilcox. Did he say which of us he wished to see?"
"All of you, my lady, for he has brought the will."
"I see. Thank you, Wilcox. If you could see to tea now for the rest of us, that would be lovely."
As the butler departed, Lady Hargrave turned to her children. Caroline, at twenty-three, and Stephen, as her late husband's heir, must hear the will. At sixteen, Miles should no doubt be present as well, but she hesitated over thirteen-year-old Patience.
Caroline took the decision from her mother's hands as she addressed her younger sister. "Lawyers are prosy and boring, Pay. How fortunate for you that you need not join us. Will you be a dear and run to my room to let Leo out? He has been locked in all afternoon." A bright smile lit Patience's face at the opportunity to play with Caroline's King Charles spaniel. No longer quite a puppy he still loved to frolic, especially after a period of confinement.
As Patience hurried up the stairs Caroline moved toward the library. "Must we hear the will? We know that Papa's passion for gaming will have left us little but our pride. Must we have the details read to us?"
"I would know the worst," Stephen said.
"In the letter I received yesterday," Lady Hargrave offered, "Mr. Birmingham said there is no debt."
"No debt, but little income either," Caroline added. At her mother's frown she said quickly, "It is not for myself that I care, Mama, but for Stephen. It's not fair he should inherit this great house and all these acres with small hope of caring for them. The tenant farms yield less each year. Without adequate money for improvements it is only a matter of time before we will be forced to take desperate action. You cannot close your eyes to it any longer!"
"Caro is right, Mama," Stephen added. "You know yourself that without your income we would have gone hungry long ago. Yesterday I rode round to most of the tenants. The cottages have been so neglected it will take years to set them right. I find it difficult to demand rent from people who have so little and are struggling merely to survive."
"We must join Mr. Birmingham," Lady Hargrave said. "We have kept him waiting long enough."
The reading of the will was as they expected--the heavily mortgaged house and land descending to Stephen by law. There was a small jointure for Lady Hargrave; Caroline and Patience would each have four hundred a year. There were no other bequests--nothing left to servants.
Stephen, who had spoken several times during the early part of the reading, now grew silent. He had hoped his father had provided adequate dowries for his sisters, but as Mr. Birmingham drew to the final paragraphs of the document, he realized those hopes were in vain. He was both shocked and ashamed. He raised startled eyes to the solicitor as he realized he was being addressed.
"As you can see, my lord, there is no capital. I thought if perhaps you sold some of the land. Lord Devereux has always fancied the woodland west of the stream. I believe he would pay handsomely for it. The piece produces little income, so would not materially lessen--"
"No," Stephen said quietly. "Five generations of Hargraves have held this land intact. I will not be the one to give it up."
"Respectfully, my lord, your father has left you little choice. According to my records some of the servants' wages have not been paid for more than two months. Those who stay do so out of loyalty or because they have nowhere else to go. There is not enough cash for the spring planting--"
"I know all this, sir, but I will not sell any land. There must be another way." Stephen shifted uncomfortably in his chair, abruptly changing the subject. "Have you finished with the reading, Mr. Birmingham?"
"Very nearly, my lord. There is one addendum to the will, added quite recently. It concerns guardianship."
"Yes, my lord. When your father realized the severity of his illness, he named Phillip Percival Brooke as trustee, and guardian to you, your brother and younger sister."
"What of my income, sir?" Caroline asked.
"Your income and that of Miss Patience will be held in trust until you each attain the age of twenty-five, Miss Hargrave. You would, of course, be free of the trust before that time should you marry, provided Lord Brooke approves the match."
"And if he disapproves?"
"In that event the trust would continue until your twenty-fifth birthday."
"Twenty-five! Surely that is excessive?" Caroline objected.
"You may feel so, Miss Hargrave, but it was, nonetheless, your late father's wish and is legally binding."
Caroline subsided as young Miles spoke for the first time. "Who is Lord Brooke?"
"I am not acquainted with the gentleman," the solicitor answered. "Perhaps Lady Hargrave could inform us?"
"I am afraid I do not know him either," Lady Hargrave responded. "In fact, I don't remember my husband ever mentioning anyone by the name of Brooke."
"How peculiar," Stephen remarked.
Miles, who practically lived in the library and knew each book residing there, removed a copy of the Peerage from the shelf.
"Brooke," he said, "There is no Phillip Brooke, but there is a Baron Percival Randolf Reginald Brooke, born 1739, married 1775 to Martha Westbury Rivington, third daughter of the Earl of Cumberland. Principal residence, Southwell House, Southwell, Nottinghamshire. There were two children--Helen Francine, born December 2, 1777 and Phillip Percival Randolf, born June 5, 1782. There is no more, but this is an old publication, older than I, surely."
"That does not tell us much," Caroline added. "Only that our trustee will be thirty-five next year. Have you written to him, Mr. Birmingham, to apprise him of my father's death?"
"I have indeed done so, Miss Hargrave, and hope to hear from him by return post."
Phillip, Lord Brooke sat at a large mahogany desk in the well-appointed estate office of Southwell House. Seated at his right hand was his personal secretary, Matthew Keating; standing nearby was his estate agent, John Crawford.
Brooke addressed his agent in a pleasant baritone. "That will be all, Crawford. I am leaving for Lincolnshire tomorrow as planned. I will keep you informed concerning the things we discussed."
"Very good, my lord."
When Crawford had gone, Lord Brooke turned his attention to his secretary. Youngest of six boys and a distant cousin by marriage, Matthew Keating had applied to Brooke for employment immediately after leaving Cambridge. With no particular affinity for the church and even less for the army, he had convinced Lord Brooke that he could be a useful member of Brooke's household. Now, after seven years of depending upon Keating's quiet efficiency, Brooke could not imagine how he had ever managed without him.
"If we are finished, Matthew, I think I shall have a bath before dinner," his lordship remarked.
"There was one thing more, sir. The letter I mentioned from Hertford, from Lord Hargrave's man of business." Keating watched as his employer's handsome face settled into a frown.
"I told you to deal with it, Matthew. I am certain you will handle whatever it is, admirably."
"I read the letter, sir, as you asked, but it is a matter you must see to personally. I have it here. It's brief." He placed the letter into Brooke's outstretched hand, then watched to see what sort of response it would bring.
Brooke leaned back in his chair, his dark hair catching the rays of the late afternoon sun streaming though the high windows. After reading only a few lines, he rose impatiently and began to pace the room, his booted feet drumming against the highly polished floor boards. His fine eyes darkened as his brows drew together in disbelief. That expression quickly gave way to one of consternation and when the gray eyes were turned to his, Keating thought he recognized anger in them as well.
"What foolishness is this?" Brooke demanded. "How can I be appointed trustee to the children of a man I have not seen in nearly eight years?"
"How did you know Lord Hargrave, sir?"
"He was my commanding officer in Spain. I saved his life once. I went back for him when his horse went down. Had to go through a couple of fellows to get to him and then took him up with me as we retreated. What does this lawyer say?" he asked, referring to the letter in his hand, "'. . . his lordship has entrusted you with the guardianship of his children . . .' If I had wanted children, Matthew . . ." He broke off suddenly, then quoted from the letter again. "'. . . Lord Hargrave is only nineteen and Lady Hargrave would welcome your support.' If these children have a mother, what need have they of me?" Crumpling the paper into a ball he tossed it onto the desk.
"No, really, my lord," Keating objected, reaching for the ill-treated letter. "You cannot do that! It is a binding obligation, however much you may dislike it."
"It is not binding! Not morally, at least, for I feel no obligation to Hargrave, alive or dead. The obligation was on his side, Matthew! I saved his life, not he mine."
"I daresay he respected you a great deal, sir. Enough to entrust you with the well-being of his family, which, after all, is a man's most prized possession. You should be honored, not vexed."
"Well, I am not honored. Damn, Matthew! I am expected at Belvoir tomorrow!"
Keating maintained a prudent silence as his employer crossed to his desk and reseated himself. When he extended an imperative hand, Keating placed the crumpled letter into it. Brooke spread the single sheet upon the desk, mechanically smoothing out the creases but not attempting to reread it. He sat for several moments in brooding silence, then sighed and raised his eyes to his waiting secretary.
"Very well, Matthew, you must write to this lawyer what's his name--no, better yet, order my chaise and four for six o'clock tomorrow morning. I will be in Hertford before any letter could hope to be." He rose and came around the desk, the letter and Mr. Birmingham's direction in his hand. "Unpleasant duties are best not delayed, Matthew. Don't you agree?"
"Absolutely, my lord."
"Please write to His Grace of Rutland for me, Matthew. Advise him that I shall be a few days late to his shooting party as I am called away by business."
The clerk seated in the front office of Birmingham, Birmingham and Smithe, Hertford, glanced up with casual interest as the street door opened, then came instinctively to his feet as he recognized a member of the Quality. On the threshold stood a very tall gentleman in buckskins and top boots. A drab multicaped driving coat swung from broad shoulders as he covered the space between door and desk in two long strides.
"I am Lord Brooke. I have no appointment but should like to speak with Mr. Jasper Birmingham."
"If you would be pleased to wait one moment, my lord, I will tell Mr. Birmingham you are here."
The young man hurried up a flight of stairs while Brooke turned his attention to the window. His carriage waiting in the street outside was drawing no small amount of attention. Children gathered to gape at the team of four horses and at the coachman and footmen attired in handsome blue and gray livery.
Brooke heard muffled voices from the floor above, then feet descending the stairs. A slight, middle-aged man with balding head and graying side-whiskers reached the bottom of the stairs and bowed briefly.
"Lord Brooke!" the man exclaimed. "How do you do? I am Jasper Birmingham. I did not expect you. I had planned to attend you in Nottinghamshire, at your convenience."
"So your letter said. As it happens it was more convenient for me to come to you."
"I see," the lawyer returned. "Would you care to step upstairs to my office?"
He stepped aside to allow Brooke to precede him up the narrow stairway. When the door was closed and they were both seated, Brooke stated bluntly. "I think you should know, Mr. Birmingham, that this trusteeship comes as a complete surprise to me."
The solicitor nodded knowingly. "I thought that perhaps might be the case when the family said they were unacquainted with you. Did you know Lord Hargrave well?"
"I knew him, I suppose, as well as comrades in arms ever know one another. I was attached to his command for nearly eighteen months. If he ever spoke of his family, I don't recall it."
"He did not write to you then, recently?"
"Within the last week or so."
"No. Unless he wrote me in London. I have been in the country since mid-November."
"He intended to write you," Mr. Birmingham said. "He told me so. You see, the will in which he named you was a recent document, executed barely a week before his death."
"Did he give you any reason for choosing me as trustee?"
"He did not confide in me, my lord. I cannot say what his motives might have been. I had assumed you would know why he appointed you."
Brooke shook his head. He did not speak again for some moments and Birmingham remained silent as well. He thought his handsome visitor looked troubled. No doubt, given time, he would share what was on his mind.
"I must say, Mr. Birmingham, that I find this situation highly irregular. I was no friend of Lord Hargrave, but an acquaintance only. I have never met any member of his family. Surely some male relative would be a more appropriate trustee than I."
"Perhaps, but as I understand it, Lord Hargrave had few close relatives, and it seems that over the years he alienated most of them. Is it your desire to relinquish the trust, my lord, or perhaps assign it to another?"
"I had considered that, yes. But as I drove down, I decided that since I have come, it could do no harm for me to at least see what the estate entails."
Mr. Birmingham began by displaying a succession of maps showing the boundaries of the estate, the timberland, the tillable acreage, the availability of water, the number and location of tenant farms. Nearly an hour later, he placed before Lord Brooke a balance sheet revealing the sad state of the Hargrave finances.
Brooke inspected the paper in growing disbelief, then searched for another sheet and for some time compared the two. Finally he spoke. "It is nearly impossible to credit these figures when compared to those of ten years ago. What could possibly explain such gross expenditures, such depletion of capital?"
"Gambling, my lord," Mr. Birmingham answered bluntly. "I knew Lord Hargrave most of his life. To my knowledge he never indulged in the pastime as a young man. But he once admitted to me that he acquired a liking for it while in the army. After he sold out, it became a ruling passion in his life."
"He is not the first man to have fallen victim to the lure of the gaming tables."
"No, sir. Nor the last. Yet in this case he was not the only victim. His family must continue to pay for his indiscretion."
"Were you in my place Mr. Birmingham, how would you administer this estate?" Brooke asked.
"I would allow young Stephen--Lord Hargrave, that is--a free hand with the estate income. The situation is grave, but there should be enough for him to meet the mortgage payments and perhaps a bit left over to do the spring planting. He is a sensible young man and I believe can be trusted entirely."
"Very well, so be it. I see here that Miss Patience is only thirteen. What of Miss Hargrave, then. She is to have four hundred a year. Should she have it?"
"That is for you to say, my lord."
"How do you believe she would employ it, were I to put it at her disposal?"
"I believe, my lord, that she would use every penny to assist her brother in his difficulties."
"I see. Admirable perhaps, but inappropriate. Shall we give her say, fifty pounds per annum, for pin money and expenses?"
"I believe that would be adequate, Lord Brooke."
"Good. Enter it so, then. Is there anything else?"
"I need your signature on several documents. I believe most of our communication can be handled through the post."
"Very well," Brooke answered as he skimmed the pages the solicitor presented and scrawled his name across the bottom of each.
"If, after you have met the family, Lord Brooke, you should wish to alter any of these arrangements, you need only inform me. You are at a disadvantage working with only my advice."
"Nonsense. You are a great deal more familiar with the Hargrave affairs than I, and therefore infinitely more qualified to offer an opinion. But I regret that it will be impossible for me to meet the Hargraves at present. I am expected at Belvoir Castle; I cannot tarry in Hertfordshire."
During the early part of March it rained in Paxton almost continuously for six days. When the rain finally ceased, Caroline was frantic to escape the house. She and Patience walked to the village to call at the rectory where Isabella Swinton, the rector's daughter, invited them for tea. When Patience went off to play with the new kittens in the stable loft, the two older girls sat alone in the garden.
"Have you heard anything more from Lord Brooke?" Isabella asked.
"No. He corresponds with Mr. Birmingham. Stephen has heard nothing since the letter he received before Christmas--and that letter Lord Brooke did not write himself. It was signed by a secretary--Mr. Matthew Keating. Mama thinks it odd that Lord Brooke has never visited, but I can only be glad. It seems unnatural to have our affairs in the hands of a stranger."
"My father thinks it would benefit Stephen to have an older man to advise him," Isabella offered.
"I don't see how that may be. Stephen's problems cannot be solved without funds, and even Lord Brooke cannot find money where there is none." Caroline smoothed her rumpled black skirt, eyeing it with disfavor. "How I loathe black. Mama says in May we may go into half-mourning, though it can't help matters much. I have less gray than black. We sorted through some things in the attic looking for fabric we might use and found some dresses we put away years ago, thinking them too shabby. They look almost new beside the things we are now wearing!"
"Stephen stopped for a few moments yesterday as he was passing through on his way to Hertford," Isabel said. "I suppose he had to sell your father's stallion?"
"I am surprised we were able to keep him so long. He was one of our most valuable assets. Stephen plans some major renovations to the home farm with the money he got for Jupiter. He hopes that with a good harvest we can show a profit this year and perhaps improve some of the tenant cottages next year."
"And the house?"
"The house must continue as it is. Any improvement would yield only comfort, and comfort is something we can ill afford. Patience and I are envisioning a wonderful garden this summer," she added. "If you come over tomorrow we will show you our plan."
When the Hargrave sisters returned home, Patience went immediately to the house while Caroline paid a visit to the neglected stables. They seemed very quiet now that her father's spirited stallion had gone. She strolled down the long row of empty boxes remembering better days, when all the stalls had been filled with fine horses. Gradually, they had all been sold. Now there was only one team for plowing, one older gelding that Stephen rode, and Caroline's old riding mare, Blossom, retired to pasture after many years of service. For a time the work team had been used to pull the carriage, but when the carriage was badly damaged on a rough road, there had been no money for repairs and it had been sold. The plow horses were not in their stalls today, and Caroline remembered that Stephen said he planned to pull stumps as soon as the rain ceased.
Caroline smiled as she thought of her determined brother. He was such a dedicated, honorable young man. What wonderful things he could have done with the Hall if only his father had left him something to work with. As it was, he struggled along with small sums, trying to make them do miracles. He staunchly refused his mother's money when she offered it, suggesting instead that it be used for basic necessities within the house. He had ordered an adequate supply of coal and wood laid in so they would not spend another winter shivering.
Stephen and Miles Hargrave had come down from school the previous year when their father was unable to provide their fees. The rector offered to help them continue their studies, and the extensive library at Paxton Hall provided most of the resources they needed. But Caroline knew that Stephen's first love was the land; since his father's death it was all he thought of.
Not so with Miles. Miles loved learning and she knew he feared he might never have the opportunity to attend university. He worked steadfastly at Stephen's side, willingly joining in each project, but at every opportunity he would escape to his room or to the library to bury himself in his beloved books.
Being the oldest, Caroline was in the habit of watching over her brothers and sister. Of the three, she supposed she worried most about Patience. The boys would make it on their own somehow--they were talented and they were men. But what would become of Patience, she wondered, with only a small income and no prospect of ever leaving Paxton? She had a gentle soul and she would be a beauty; but would those qualities ever be recognized? In their present circumstances, Caroline had her doubts.