Authors: Mary Kingswood
The daughters of Allamont Hall were in the drawing room. Mr and Miss Endercott moved smoothly forwards as the butler announced them, greeting this one or that one with practised ease. Mr Burford stood, blinking, on the threshold. This moment always petrified him. Six young ladies to be greeted, and so alike! The same dark hair, arranged in much the same manner, the same style of dress… and yet there were differences. Belle was easy to spot, with her plain features. And his Hope, of course, with her sweet innocence. Amy — so much easier to identify now that she had Ambleside always with her. Grace perhaps was a little taller than the others, but that left Constance and Dulcie and he could never distinguish between them.
As he took a couple of uncertain steps forward, Belle rose and crossed the room to meet him, holding out her hand. “Good evening, Mr Burford. How are you?”
“Very well, I thank you, Miss Belle.”
“Your sermon was quite splendid today. You have a rare talent for explaining the subtleties of a Biblical text in such a way as to make them completely comprehensible. I had never imagined so much might be read into so few words.”
“By which you mean, I suppose, that I rambled interminably on a single verse?”
She laughed, her dark eyes lighting up. “Not at all. You are determined not to be complimented, I see. But do come in! You need not linger on the threshold like a commonplace caller, for you are quite an old friend now. I hope you are hungry tonight, for Mr Garmin has sent us a fine fat goose for our dinner.”
“A goose! How splendid! There is nothing I like better.”
“Indeed? And yet I seem to recall that you said as much about the beef last week.”
“When I am given goose to eat, I like it above all things, and when I am offered beef, that is quite my favourite.”
“How droll you are, Mr Burford!”
She was claimed at that moment by Miss Endercott, and Mr Burford was left to ponder in some bemusement his unaccustomed status as a man of wit.
He worked his way around the room making his greetings, managing not to muddle any of the sisters. And then there she was.
“M-M-Miss Hope, I t-t-trust you are w-w-well?” He blushed violently, but he managed to make his bow.
She laughed, a charming tinkling sound like a fountain playing. “Oh indeed, thank you, I am quite well, Mr Burford. And I need not enquire as to
health, for you thundered magnificently from the pulpit this afternoon.”
“Th-th-thundered? I hope I d-d-did not f-f-frighten you with the f-f-force of my speech, M-M-Miss Hope.”
“Oh, not at all, or nothing to signify. I was only a trifle alarmed by your passion, Mr Burford.”
She giggled, hand over mouth, as he blushed even more furiously. It was fortunate that they went in to dinner just then, for he found himself bereft of speech.
He sat, not beside his lady love, but opposite her, where he had all the advantage of gazing across the table at her lovely face, and no obligation to talk to her and expose his love-struck inarticulacy. He preferred to look at her, for so much beauty moved him greatly, and naturally the outward appearance matched the inner grace of her purity, her sweetness, her charm and good nature. Such a kind soul, always tripping about the village on some errand or other, always with a serene smile playing on her lips. He sighed to think of it.
“Mr Burford!” Miss Endercott’s raised voice drew him back to the table. “For the second time, would you be so good as to pass the partridge, if you please?”
“Of course. I do beg your pardon, Miss Endercott.”
After dinner, Mr Endercott read a sermon and led a prayer, and then the carriage was waiting to take the guests back to the village. Mr Burford had a last glimpse of Hope’s smiling face as he left, a view which he sorrowfully accepted must sustain him for some days. As the carriage gently swayed back to the village, he began counting the number of hours until he might see her again.
Belle was reading in her favourite window seat above the hall when the sounds of a carriage arriving attracted her attention. A quick glance through the window determined the nature of the equipage — a hired postchaise, and not from any of the local inns.
“Mama!” Belle cast aside her book and skipped down the stairs to reach her mother before any of the others. She was heartily glad to have her mother home again, but the task of explaining the existence of Mr Jack Barnett was a delicate one, not something to be blurted out on the doorstep in full view of the servants.
Her sisters streamed out of the morning room, chattering excitedly. Belle had time only for a hasty warning before the butler opened the front door and their mother appeared.
Lady Sara Allamont was as unlike her daughters as it was possible to be. Where they were slender and rather short, she was tall with a statuesque appearance. Where they had their father’s dark hair and eyes, she was blue-eyed and fair, with hair which curled without any assistance from her maid. Where they were generally accounted pretty, she had been a famous beauty in her youth, and still had an air of aristocratic refinement that turned heads wherever she went. Belle envied her mother her serenity and her looks, but not a great deal else. Being the daughter of an earl made certain demands on one, and Belle was content to be merely the second daughter of Mr William Allamont.
“Well, girls, here you all are still,” Lady Sara said. They all curtsied to her, as she swept past them into the hall. “I am fatigued by my journey. I shall rest in my sitting room until dinner. Miller, bring me some ratafia and a box of bon-bons.”
And with that the sisters had to be content. It was not until after dinner, when Mr Ambleside had departed, that they had an opportunity to talk to their mother about Mr Jack Barnett. She received the news with astonishing equanimity.
“But what is to be done about it, Mama?” Belle said, when the tale had reached its dreadful conclusion and still Lady Sara was silent.
“Why, nothing. If this person believes he has a claim, then he must apply to the law, and the law will take its course. It is nothing to do with us.”
“Nothing to do with us? When we may be thrown out of our home at any moment?” Belle protested.
“There is no call for melodrama, Belle. You girls will all marry and I shall live retired at the Dower House, so it matters not one jot who lives here. As far as I am concerned, Mr Jack Barnett may have Allamont Hall with my goodwill.”
There was a shocked silence.
“I do not think this news surprises you, Mama,” Belle said in a small voice.
“That your father was wickedly sinful? No, I knew all about
, and the supposed home for foundling children. I did not expect a claim on the estate, but it tells me something of the young man’s character.”
“Mr Plumphett has been trying to tell you of it for some time.”
“Plumphett fusses more than a washer-woman. I read his letters, but I deemed it not important enough to concern myself with. Nothing I have heard this evening has changed my mind. If the prospect of a stranger inheriting the Hall distresses you, Belle, I suggest you apply yourself to the task of finding a husband.”
“As soon as Amy is married, I intend to do so, Mama.”
“Why wait? The sooner you are gone, the sooner you stop plaguing me with these petty matters. Your father left you well provided for, so you have no excuse to loiter about the house like a parlour maid. Go out into society, indulge yourself, flirt a little. You might even enjoy yourself for once, who can say?”
Belle was too shocked to answer.
The weather turned wet for some days, and with the first return of the sun, Belle proposed to walk into the village to carry out a few small errands. None of her sisters were inclined to brave the mud, but they were very happy to give her many commissions of their own. Lower Brinford was a small village boasting few shops, but it was fortunate in offering one of particular interest to young ladies, namely the drapery and haberdashery of Mr and Mrs Wiseman, wherein might be purchased all manner of ribbons and threads and feathers and other delights.
They greeted her with pleasure, and happily pulled out drawer after drawer to help her determine the best colours and sizes.
“I will take these needles, and some pins, also,” Belle said. “I do not know how it is, but pins seem to vanish.”
“We have these,” Mr Wiseman said. “Will these do? Or do you want the thinner variety, Miss Allamont?”
“Some of each, I believe.”
“Then I must look in the stores in the back room, for there are none here. Forgive me, Miss Allamont.” Bowing, he retreated from the little front room of their cottage, which was the full extent of the shop.
“I will take the blue ribbon, and the yellow—” Belle began, but Mrs Wiseman for some unaccountable reason began bobbing curtsies. “Whatever is the matter?”
“Beg pardon, Miss Allamont,” she said in a hurried whisper. “I hope you don’t mind my speaking to you like this but Mr Wiseman wouldn’t like it.”
“Oh, in that case, I do not think—”
“You see, the account hasn’t been paid.” Her hands flew to her mouth, as if to prevent herself from saying any more, but it was no use, for the words would not remain unsaid. “Not a penny have we had, not since your poor papa died, and the amount… it’s rather a large amount to us, you understand. We’ve had no meat for a month, except what my sister can spare.”
“My dear Mrs Wiseman, do not distress yourself. I am sure this is an oversight. Did you send the reckoning at the usual time?”
“Oh yes, Miss Allamont, directed to her ladyship. But I’m certain—”
Mr Wiseman stood in the doorway, glowering at his wife. He forced an unconvincing smile as he bowed very low. “I beg you will excuse my wife’s unpardonable incivility, Miss Allamont. Pray forgive us for mentioning such a matter to you.”
“Nonsense, Mr Wiseman. It is very bad in us to neglect to settle our accounts. I shall speak to Mama about it. Thank you, yes, those pins as well, and that will be everything for today, I believe.”
In silence the Wisemans wrapped and tied with string and made an array of neat parcels.
“Shall I have these delivered, Miss Allamont?”
“No, I shall take them with me. But tell me, Mr Wiseman, am I to suppose that you are not alone in your unfortunate predicament? Is it the case that there are other tradesmen whose accounts remain unpaid?”
There was a very long silence, while Mr Wiseman clearly wrestled with his conscience. But honesty compelled him. “I believe that is so, Miss Allamont. Mr Price, the farrier, is one such, and also Mr Turner, the carpenter. Mr Willow, also, from the general store.”
“And Mrs Greenwood, who takes in the laundry,” his wife added.
“Be so good as to tell them that I will take care of the matter as soon as I may,” Belle said, although she had no idea how that might be accomplished.
For once, she took no notice of the beauties of the season as she walked home through the woods. Her mind was entirely occupied with puzzling over the matter. Her father’s income had been considerable, she knew that — she had heard three thousand pounds mentioned, and he was a man of such regularity of habit, who had kept the most meticulous records, that she could not believe that he had ever exceeded his income. That income should have continued to appear, and, in the absence of an acknowledged heir, her mother would have the full use of it. It followed, therefore, that lack of money was not the problem. They were far from destitute.
It must have been an oversight on her mother’s part, she decided. Lady Sara had been away so much that perhaps bills had been forgotten about. She resolved to raise the matter with her mother at the earliest opportunity.
As soon as she arrived at the Hall, her parcels were seized on with glee, and carried away in triumph to the drawing room to be examined. By the time Belle had removed her muddy boots and cloak, and made herself respectable, Mr Ambleside, their first caller of the day, had arrived, followed very shortly after by Miss Endercott and Mr Burford.
Having made her greetings, Belle found that the party had already formed itself into two settled conversational groups, without any chair conveniently situated for her to join either of them. When her father had been alive, the family had always sat in a circle, the sisters arranging themselves strictly in order of age. Now, they might sit where they pleased and the freedom was refreshing. Being thus unwanted, she felt at liberty to seat herself a little away from the others and open a book. For a little while, she read in peace, the chatter in the room not disturbing her attention in the least.
This pleasant scheme was only disturbed by the arrival of her two cousins, Mary and James. Mary was a handsome woman of five and twenty, and her brother, a man of pleasant manners and fashionable style, was one and twenty. Their father, Mr Henry Allamont, was cousin to Belle’s father, and they lived an easy ride away, so easy, in fact, that they were drawn to call upon the sisters two or three times every week. Seeing Belle sitting alone, they seated themselves one either side of her.
“Ah, we interrupt your studies,” Mary said with a laugh. “What book is it that you find so engrossing?”
“It is only Mr Hume’s history,” Belle said, closing it. “I have read it many times before.”
“Why do you read a book you have read before?” James said. “That must be very dull work.”
Belle sighed. “I must do so, since I have nothing new to read. I have heard that there is a circulating library opened in Brinchester, but I have not yet had the opportunity to join it. Have you been there? Are there a great many books?”
But neither of them knew anything about it.
“How is your mama?” Mary said. “I have not seen her since her return from London.”
“She is well, but she says that company fatigues her. She keeps to her room most mornings.”
Mary was silent for a moment. “I am sorry for it. A young lady can have no better example to follow regarding behaviour and manners in company than her own mother. But perhaps when her year of mourning is over, Lady Sara will go more into society?”
“I do not know,” Belle confessed. “She has not divulged her thoughts on the subject.”
At that moment, her attention was caught by Mr Burford, face aflame, stuttering and stammering.
“How is it,” she exclaimed, “that a sensible man, a man of education and some intelligence, may be wonderfully articulate in the pulpit and yet unable to utter a single word in the presence of a pretty young lady.”
“He is in love,” Mary said. “All men are foolish when they are in love.”
“And women, too,” Belle said. “For Hope simpers and blushes just as much as poor Mr Burford.”
“It looks better on her,” Mary said. “A man with red hair should never blush if he can possibly help it.”
“I wonder how he will ever manage to propose?”
“We must have faith that words will fail him. Hope can do much better, I feel certain. He has no more than his curate’s stipend and a little money of his own. Two hundred pounds a year at most. Even with Hope’s dowry, it is not enough to live on in any comfort. Besides, she is too young to have formed a lasting attachment. A season or two in society, with the added inducement to suitors of twenty thousand pounds, would do her a world of good. She could aim for a title. Excuse me, I believe Miss Endercott wishes to speak with me.”
When she had left, James said, “Twenty thousand? I had thought the sum was seventeen or so.”
“So it was, but we recently heard that the fund has increased in value since Papa died.”
“Indeed? Then perhaps we should wait another year or two or five to be married, coz, to see if it increases even more.”
“Yet such a large increase suggests a speculative investment,” Belle said. “Perhaps the value may fall again just as quickly.”
“Then we should call the banns as soon as Amy is at the church door. What say you, coz? For we should deal extremely well, you and I, with your practical nature and my easy-going charm.”
“Your love of horses and my twenty thousand pounds, you mean,” Belle said, smiling. “You forget, I have known you all my life.”
He had the good grace to look conscious. “Well, it is a consideration, coz, you must admit. Papa is not flush with money, and Willowbye takes a deal of looking after. But for all that, I do think we would be a good match. There is the Hall and the Allamont estate to take into account, too, for we should inherit the whole of it. You could do a lot worse, you know, coz.”
“I do know it.”
“What, you would truly consider it? You are not just teasing me? Amy would not even look at me.”
“I would truly consider it. The prospect of dragging myself through balls and routs and interminable dinners, and simpering at stupid young men, just to prevail on one of them to condescend to marry me is not a prospect which appeals to me greatly. I have to marry, and soon enough that my sisters will get their turn before they are quite old maids, and why not you? I believe I could keep you in order, cousin.”
His face was a comical mixture of shock and alarm, but he made a good attempt to recover. “I should be delighted to be kept in order by you, dear coz, that goes without saying.”