"We have done it again, Maisie--outrun the grocer." I congratulated my aunt as we sat together in the garden trying to balance the books of Westgate Hall. "I'll have to sell my necklace. We owe the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, to say nothing of the greengrocer, the modiste and the bank. Really, it is only the bank I am worried about. The mortgage comes due the end of the month. There is no way a hundred pounds is going to fall into our laps within a few weeks."
"You can get an extension," Maisie suggested, running her practiced eye over my columns of figures. She is a wizard at ciphering, but no better manager than I am myself.
"That will only delay the inevitable. And there is Jeremy's tuition to be paid in the autumn. I won't have him quit Oxford. The Braden gentlemen have always gone to Oxford. Just one more year to go; it would be a shame to pull him out."
"It would," she agreed sadly. Jeremy was born a scholar; read Latin and Greek as well as any university don when he was still a boy. "On the other hand, it is not likely he will ever want to live at Westgate. He will take up teaching at the university when he graduates."
"Yes, Auntie, and what do you and I take up? Begging? I fully intend to live out my days here, where I was born and bred. We will keep it up for Jeremy. We are close enough to the university that he can come home for holidays, even weekends if he wants."
Westgate is not so far removed from Oxford, just a little to the northeast of Bath. It is a fine old estate, comprising five hundred acres of workable land. We have twenty tenants, mostly in dairy farming, and we have a small forest. Were it not for our tenants, we would have been in the basket long since.
After my father's death, we were obliged to hire a steward, and then another to undo the disastrous work of the first. When the cure proved worse than the disease, my father's brother, Weston, came to help us out. He is nominally the guardian of the place till Jeremy reaches maturity, but an elderly scholar retired a hundred miles away in Hampshire is only a guardian on paper. He arranged the mortgage at the bank for us, and hired our third steward, Mr. Berrigan, whose first clever move was to cut down half our forest before it was ready. The striplings he sent off to the lumber mill were treated as quite a joke. They were sold for kindling?fine hardwood trees that would have brought a good price eventually, and in the interim made Westgate beautiful, instead of the way it is now, with a great gaping hole in the backdrop the forest always provided to the house.
Berrigan's next stunt was to allow some cattle disease to run through our herd. Aphthous fever it was called. He was so busy chopping down striplings he failed to observe the cattle limping, and the blisters forming in their mouths and on their udders. Not till the milk yield was decimated and the cattle thin and lank did it occur to him there was anything amiss. By that time he had sold and traded several head, so that the disease ran rampant through our part of the country. You may imagine how popular the incident made us. We were not the only family saddled with a mortgage after the fever had done its work.
Now, with no lumber to sell in the foreseeable future, and our milk yield still not up to par, we are in a fine pickle. Thank God for the tenants on the far side of the river, who managed to isolate their herds. They are all that keep us going.
"You will sell it to Weston Braden, I suppose?" Maisie asked, referring to my necklace.
"He once offered me five thousand pounds for it. I'll drop him a line and see if he is still interested. If he is not, I'll go to London and take what I can get for it there."
"You'll not get that much. Weston's main interest in it is historical. He dotes on anything Elizabethan."
"He most particularly dotes on my necklace. Remember, he had a copy made ten years ago when he visited Papa?"
"He says the old queen gave it to your ancestor, Sir Eldridge Braden, for helping her out of some tight political corner, but your papa had the idea she was sweet on Eldridge. There is that inscription on the silver plaque inside the box?what does it say?"
"It says, "with our extreme gratitude for your loving aid," I believe."
"He'll want the box as well," she warned me.
"He is welcome to it. The box is not of much value without the contents. Shall I put the ugly thing on and model it for you?"
She did not reply, but looking at my diamonds seemed a pleasant pastime after worrying over accounts for the better part of the afternoon. One ought not to have to worry about money in the last fine summer spell of the year. In August, the sun was high and hot, the greenery bereft of its first exquisite spring flush. The leaves on the trees drooped thirstily, the roses wilted on their stems. The bees droned over the thyme and stonecrop in the rockery, inducing a strange lethargy in me. I could not bother going up to my room to get my precious jewelry.
Booty, our slave of a factotum, came to us in the garden just then with a jug of lemonade. My pug, Mitzi, was at his heels, barking furiously at having been abandoned for several hours. I suddenly knew that what I wanted was not to look at the diamonds, but to draw my wicker chair into the shade and sip cold lemonade, to hold Mitzi on my lap and stroke her into silence, and daydream about what I would do when I had realized five thousand pounds for the sale of the heirloom.
Maisie, who has an uncanny way of reading my mind, drew her chair into the shadows as well, settling back with a dreamy look on her face. Maisie Belmont is an excellent companion. She talks when one wants company, is silent when one wants to dream, she does more than a lady ought to have to do around the house without a murmur of complaint, and without having any air of a drudge. She is my late mother's sister, a spinster who has lived here since my birth. She came to bear Mama company at that time, and never left.
The anguish of losing my mother was greatly mitigated by having Maisie. In a way, I was closest to her, because my parents had each other, while Maisie had only me and Jeremy. She is half sister, half mother, whole friend. She has a funny, orangey color of hair, its garishness tamed now by a liberal streaking of gray. She cuts it short, as it is inclined to frizz. She has what she calls a moon face, round and pale, but enlivened with intelligent green eyes. Without ever exposing a square inch of her flesh to direct sunlight, she usually manages to have a goodly supply of freckles by summer's end. At fifty years of age, she has filled out to a roly-poly figure, which she encases in plain, dark gowns, with no pretension to fashion. Lately, the last year or so, she has suddenly begun to seem old. The fire is banking down in her spirits. The jokes are less ready, the voice taking on a querulous tone. I suppose it is the age for it?fifty. Or maybe our financial difficulties have troubled her more than she lets on. It saddens me to see her grow listless, but of course I still love her.
I glanced at her, cherishing her plain, moon face. Wouldn't it be awful when she was gone? Mitzi emitted one of her ugly spitting sounds as my fingers pushed too hard into her neck. I relaxed, turning purposefully to happier thoughts. I saw a halcyon future, with Jeremy established to prominence in a scholastic career, Westgate safely out of the hands of the mortgage people, a ready supply of cash invested in the funds from the sale of the necklace, Maisie and myself going cosily on in our quiet routine here at home. We are not very sociable. We take part in the local ?do?s, of course, mostly those connected with the church and Eastgate Hall.
The estate of which our Westgate forms a corner was once annexed to Lord Beattie's domain, Eastgate. We have some slim kinship with the Beatties, going back a few centuries, but they have long since outpaced us in the accumulation of titles, wealth and prestige. Eastgate is a grander place entirely, a castle really, that resembles a stone quarry, it is built of such rough and ready material. Westgate is more refined. Our stones are shaped geometrically, and fashioned into a pretty, gothicky sort of building. Beattie once told me our place was built to house some mad relation of his, and there is actually an iron grated window in one bedroom which serves to substantiate his claim, but I do not mean to imply this bad streak runs in our blood. I am not so sure he has not a touch of it himself, but that is neither here nor there.
Lord Beattie is seventy years old, and has a son half that age. He proposed marriage to me last year?the father, I mean. He was vexed, too, when I turned him down. I felt no temptation to accept. Marriage has no attraction for me. I am one of those rare creatures who is perfectly happy without a man in her life. Other than having children, without whom the world would be a sorry place of course, I see little point in marriage. I have a home, Maisie for company, a dog to berate when I am angry and Jeremy to worry about. With all that, who needs a husband?
Beattie was not my first rejection. I have not had many offers, but without giving the least encouragement to any gentleman, I have had a few. Churchmen seem to be attracted to me. I daresay they think I would make a fit addition to a manse. At least they would never have to fear the scandal of a wayward wife, flirting with the parishioners, wearing dashing gowns, taking too much wine or behaving in any way that would not suit them. Quite a pineapple of maidenly, modest perfection, when you come down to it. Why the womanizing Lord Beattie should have proposed remains a total mystery to me. Perhaps he is under the misapprehension that Westgate belongs to me. It does not; it is Jeremy's estate. The proposal occurred at a musical evening at his place. It was the same evening he gave me my pug dog, Mitzi.
When I had paid off Jeremy's mortgage, I would truly have earned my retirement at Westgate. I would slowly sink into a spinster like my Aunt Maisie, who is as happy as any wife you can name. Happier than most, I daresay. At least we would have no lord and master to gamble away our place, to come home roaring drunk, to curse and swear and abuse us, as I have seen many a man who is called a good husband do.
But I don't mean to color myself a misogamist. I have known happy marriages?my parents?, for instance. Jeremy too will make some mild lady a suitable spouse one day. He has a good disposition, and no bad habits except littering the house from end to end with open books. He flies into quite a pelter when I put them back on the shelves, which he terms ?hiding? them.
After we had finished the lemonade, and after I had reminisced and daydreamed to my heart's content, we went indoors to change for dinner. We observe the amenities of life here at Westgate, Maisie and I. In a lighthearted mood from having taken my decision, I donned my diamonds for a final wearing before I should take them off to Uncle Weston Braden.
"Farewell performance, eh, Lizzie?" my aunt asked, with a large smile adorning her face. I made a curtsey, lifting my skirt tails to show myself off. I had worn my good green gown, to do justice to the jewels. Booty, unimpressed, hastened us toward the dining room, before our supper should grow cold.
"I decided to have a final wear out of them. I have written Weston. If he is still interested, I shall take them to him personally. It would not be safe to send them through the mail, and we cannot spare a servant. I'll drive down to Fareham myself. I may stay a week or so."
"Do you want me to go with you?" she asked.
"That is up to you. I mean to take Mitzi along for company. At my age, I hardly require a chaperone, but if you would enjoy the trip, do come."
"If I thought Jeremy would be coming home ..."
"What, leave the happy halls of Oxford, when he has got the run of the library for the summer, unhampered by students? Not a chance. He has not even taken the pains to write more than once. I shan't be going for a week or five days. I must wait and hear if Weston still wants the necklace."
?I don't think I will go. I never could care for Weston Braden. And there is that stepson of his, Glandower Cummings, who will be grinning at us."
"Glandower won't be there. He spends his time in London gambling and chasing heiresses. Aunt Vera complained of him in her last letter."
"Weston is too soft with him," she complained. "You want to puff Jeremy off while you are there. You might pull the estate out from under that grinning Glandower yet."
"There is no chance of it. He dotes on the boy, as he did his mother."
"Old fool, marrying a woman half his age."
"She was forty, Maisie. Speak no ill of the dead. It was her good fortune her son should land in the honeypot. It does Jeremy out of the Rusholme estate but then, you know, when people fall over that strange precipice called love, they lose all common sense."
"Have you ever been in love, Liz?" she asked suddenly.
It was an extremely unlikely question to come from my sensible aunt. There was some strange feeling in the air that evening. A storm was brewing, causing an oppressive atmosphere, stirring dormant emotions, unsettling the soul. Streaks of lightning flashed beyond the windows, giving eerie, fleeting glimpses of black silhouettes of trees whipping wildly in the park beyond. Thunder added its ominous, angry rattle, shaking the crystal on the table, even causing the candle flames to flicker. At the far end of the room, I caught a picture of myself reflected in the mirror. It was my diamond necklace that drew my eyes to it. They danced with an orange-red-blue-purple flame. My hair looked black in reflection, though it is far from it, more of a coppery red color actually. Not orange, like Maisie's used to be.
I felt strangely as though I were looking at someone other than myself, some?queen. It was likely Queen Elizabeth's gift to my ancestor that called this caprice to mind. I had not realized how proudly I held my head, till that very moment. Some folks call me proud, though I do not think I am anything of the sort, you may be sure. I might accept the term assertive. I do not hesitate to speak up for my rights. At the ripe old age of twenty-five, a lady loses her girlish hesitation. I went on looking at the queen, assessing her appearance. She had rather handsome eyes, I thought. Dark and widely spaced. Her imperfect nose was concealed at the distance at which I sat from her. Her mouth looked sulky.
"Well, have you?" Maisie repeated.
"No," I answered. "Have you?"
"Yes, I was, once."
"Maisie! You have been holding out on me all these years! I did not think there was much about you I did not know. Who was the lucky man?"
"Lucky he didn't get stuck with me, you mean?"
"No, lucky he earned your love."
"Oh he didn't earn it. I don't think love can be earned. For myself, I never cared much for anyone who deserved me. Love is a gift, not always welcome either."
"Was it Reverend Simms?" I asked, naming an old cleric who used to call more often than his ecclesiastical business warranted. She shook her head firmly, giving me a malevolent glare from her sharp green eyes. I named a few more gentlemen of the same kidney?dry old sticks actually.
"You have an odd idea of my taste in men!" she declared, miffed with me.
"Who was he then? I shan't tell a soul. Promise."
"Beattie," she answered, with a challenging lift of her chin, as though to say, "What of it?"
?Lord Beattie?old Lord Beattie?" I gasped.
"Not his rakeshame son. Yes, it was why I stared and then laughed like a hyena when you told me he had offered for you. Remember, when you told me in the carriage on the way home from the concert that he had offered, I laughed till the tears streamed down my face. In the end, I didn't know whether I was laughing or crying."
"You are the slyest woman in the parish, Maisie Belmont! I never had a single suspicion you were sweet on him. I don't think I approve of your taste, incidentally."
"Neither do I," she answered quickly. "I never did approve of him; I just loved him. I thought he was finally warming up to me that day, you see. He asked a dozen personal questions, but I realized then, when you told me, he was only quizzing to see if I would be staying here, or would expect to go with you to Eastgate. I had a wicked crush on that man twenty years ago, around the time Jeremy was born. Used to ride toward Eastgate, hoping just for a sight of him. He looked like something in those days, Liz, I can tell you."
"But he was married at the time!?
"I know. Then when his wife died ten years later, I had another flare-up of my grand passion. I let it molder on till you told me that day he had offered for you. Laughing and making a joke of it. I wanted to strangle you?or him. Ah, well, it quenched the last of the embers for me. I gave up on him for good then."
"Why did you decide to tell me now?" I asked. Her shoulders had slumped forward as she spoke. She looked old, not aging?old. It was about a year ago, when Beattie made me his ridiculous offer, that she had begun to change. If quenching the embers had done this to her, I think she would have done better to go on hoping, however futile the hope.
"I don't know why I told you," she said, crumbling a piece of bread with her fingers, while a faraway look came into her eyes. "You look so handsome tonight, in your diamonds, I just wondered?I mean, it is odd you never bothered to get married. Don't you ever mean to?"
"Of course not," I said gruffly, with a last look at the queen in the mirror. Then my gaze turned back to Maisie, to see her looking just as usual?plain, settled. I found it totally incredible she should have been attracted to an outright rake and philanderer such as Beattie had been in his youth. His son was such another ne?er-do-well; he had never caused me so much as a single moment's anguish. I despised him very thoroughly. My only emotion when he married a few years ago was pity for his wife.
The storm broke as we finished our dinner. We had tea in the Rose Saloon, while the rain beat against the windowpanes, and the wind whistled down the flue. The subject of Maisie's unrequited love did not come up again. I felt she was sorry she had told me, and meant never to say another word on the subject.
When I went up to my room, I removed the magic necklace, laid it with great ceremony in the green leather box with the green silk lining, bearing the little silver plaque, "with our extreme gratitude for your loving aid." Was it possible the queen had one of those unrequited passions for my ancestor? If so, the historians over the centuries had missed out on it. It was mentioned in no history book I ever read. I felt cheated, somehow, that I had never had even an unrequited love. A sense of urgency amounting almost to panic consumed me. Had God forgotten all about me?
When I arose next morning, all such foolish fancies were dissipated, like the storm. I was back to my normal, assertive, sensible self, giving Booty orders how to proceed during my absence, and Berrigan a good tongue-lashing to hold him in line till I returned. I would turn him off after I got back home. A few days was not sufficient time to find a good replacement.
Three days later I had an answer from Uncle Weston, claiming an interest in the diamond necklace, but stipulating that he was short of funds and could only offer thirty-five hundred. I wrote back asserting I would take four thousand, and that I would leave the next day.
"Do you come with me or not, Maisie?" I asked as I wrote the letter. "I should tell Weston how many of us are going."
"I might as well," she decided. "It will be dull here alone. There has been no word from Jeremy. I'll write him we are going, in case he planned to come home."
"We take more pains for the comfort of our menfolk than they take for ours."
"I knew how it would be!" she flared up in Jeremy's defense. She fancies herself quite a mother to him.
"What in the world are you talking about?"
"You're mad at him because of selling your diamonds, and the poor boy doesn't even know you are doing it. You should tell him. He'd prefer to sell Westgate."
"He couldn't care less. I'm not doing it for him, but for us. I was talking about his never writing to us."
"How many times have you written to him??
"Once, and he didn't bother to answer. You write every week. So you are coming with me, then?"
"Yes, I'll go."
I included her name, finished up my letter and sealed it for posting. "There, the demmed thing is done," I said crossly.
"It is not proper for a lady to say ?demmed." That is fitter talk for a guttersnipe," she called after me as I went into the hall to place my letter on the mail tray, timing her jibe so I would be sure to hear it, but not consider it worthwhile returning to retaliate. If this fit of crankiness kept up, I would be happier without her company.