Belle (The Daughters of Allamont Hall Book 2) (5 page)

BOOK: Belle (The Daughters of Allamont Hall Book 2)
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Without such constraint, Belle had spent an hour or more in Miss Featherstone’s splendid library, with the enthusiastic assistance of Mr Burford. The business of subscribing, and then the choosing of books — all was made easy by his guidance. And then they had all gone to the White Rose Hotel for some refreshments, and Mr Burford had entertained the two ladies by reading verses of poetry aloud, in such a striking manner that he had attracted quite a crowd. He had a wonderful speaking voice, perfect for his profession.

And now the carriage was making its ponderous way homeward, with a delightfully large bundle of books on the forward seat, a vast sum of money in her reticule and Miss Bellows asleep in the corner, leaving Belle free to ponder her successful venture with a smile of satisfaction on her face.

When they arrived back at Allamont Hall, she was surprised to hear a raised voice in the drawing room, and, even more astonishingly, it was a man’s voice. Her sisters occasionally squabbled, as sisters were wont to do, and once or twice her father had been angry enough to shout at one of the servants, and they had all crept around the house for days afterwards, keeping out of his way. But visitors, in her experience, did not shout.

The drawing room door flew open, and Cousin Henry appeared, or rather, his back appeared, for he was still facing into the room, still addressing those within. “I am disappointed in you, Sara, very disappointed,” he said. “You might exert yourself, for once, for the sake of your children. This is not a time to sit still and let matters take their own course.”

Belle heard her mama’s voice murmuring from within the room, but clearly her answer was not satisfactory for Cousin Henry gave an exclamation of annoyance and spun round, shutting the door behind him with such force that a small watercolour on the wall rattled ominously. He strode towards the door, head down, and Belle had to leap aside to avoid a collision.

He startled. “Oh, Belle! Goodness, I did not see you there. Well, perhaps
you
will be able to instill good sense into your mama, for I declare she will not listen to me.”

“I do not believe she would take advice from me, either,” Belle said with a smile.

He was still breathing hard, but now he made some effort to calm himself. “I beg your pardon, I should not lose my temper so easily, but to speak truth, Belle, this matter of…”

He became aware of the footman, holding out his hat and gloves, and the butler waiting to open the door for him, and lowered his voice still further.

“You know the matter of which I speak, and your mama will do nothing about it. A little effort on her part would see this… this
person
got rid of and we might all be easy. But it is her affair, and we may all go to the devil, I suppose, while she is…” A sigh escaped him. “Well, no matter. Your mama has always known her own mind, and no amount of persuasion has the slightest effect. She was always stubborn, and that is why… But that is all in the past, and I have long forgiven her. She knows I have her best interests at heart, always.” He stopped, and looked at Belle thoughtfully. “As to this
person
, we will talk of it again, Belle, for this is
your
future at stake, as much as anyone’s. Good day to you.”

And with that he collected his hat and gloves, and was gone, leaving Belle, bemused, still standing in the hall.

5: Accounts

Belle spent the evening describing her day in Brinchester to her sisters, who wished to know every detail, no matter how insignificant it might be. However, the sisters had little interest in the delights of the circulating library, and none at all in the bank, so in the end the main topic of conversation was Mr Burford.

“How astonishing that you should happen to meet just at that moment,” Hope said. “I am never so lucky. Why, look how often I walk into the village and yet never see Mr Burford once, although he lives there. And yet you go once to Brinchester, and there he is! And at leisure to spend hours and hours with you.”

“He had to wait for Sir Matthew and Lady Graham to collect him,” Belle said. “I daresay he would have gone into the church if we had not been there.”

“Why would he do that?” Hope said.

“He mentioned that it was his custom to wait in St Clarence’s until the appointed hour,” Belle said. “Besides, he is a clergyman. A church is the natural habitat of such a man, surely.”

“Well, I do not see why,” Hope said. “I am sure Mr Endercott never goes into his own church except on a Sunday. A clergyman is as much a gentleman as any other, and entitled to do as he pleases.”

“Hope, it is not your place to comment on a gentleman’s behaviour,” her mother said.

“There is a great deal of truth in Miss Hope’s observation, however,” Ambleside said. “Many of the clergy are sadly neglectful of their duties, and give themselves over entirely to pleasure, although I have not heard any criticism of Mr Endercott or Mr Burford.”

“No, indeed,” Hope said. “I am sure no accusation of neglect could ever be lodged against Mr Burford, for he seems always to be out and about on parish duties whenever I have enquired.”

“Enquired?” Lady Sara said in her most reproving tones.

Hope blushed, but said, “It is natural to enquire after an acquaintance, Mama, I am sure. Belle, are you to go again to Brinchester? Perhaps I may go with you on the next occasion, for you have had a most entertaining time of it, and I am sure that a day away from the house would do me a world of good. We are so confined here, and I have not been anywhere for days and days, with all this rain.”

“I have no thought of going to Brinchester again soon,” Belle said.

“Oh, but you have books from the circulating library, so you have to go,” Hope said. “And next time, I shall go with you.”

“Mr Burford has offered to return my books.”

“Oh. Mr Burford is to do it. How obliging he is to you, sister.” Hope said not another word all evening.

~~~~~

Two days later, when Lady Sara had taken Amy to Brinchester to see about wedding clothes, and her other sisters had decided it was dry enough to walk to the village, Belle felt it was time to deal with the money she had obtained from the bank, and decide how best to distribute it to the tradesmen and servants with accounts outstanding.

Accordingly, she took her reticule, with its deliciously heavy bag of money, and the bills her mother had given her, and went down to her father’s book room. It seemed appropriate, when looking into the household accounts, to sit in her father’s chair and employ his desk, as if in that way some of his method and competence would fall into her inexpert hands.

Her first task was to find the account books, but a search of the bookcases brought no success. There were a couple of shelves of sermons, histories and the like, most of which Belle had read many times. One whole shelf was given over to the notebooks wherein her father had recorded every detail of his daughters’ lives from birth. A few ornaments were scattered about, but still the bookcase looked very empty. A cupboard contained nothing but a bottle of brandy and a single glass.

There was nowhere else to look except the drawers of the desk. And yet she hesitated. Sitting in his chair, she felt her father’s spirit very close, as if he were watching her. She could almost imagine his face darkening at her presumption in even being in his room without him. And what private papers might be revealed by a search of his desk? What secrets might she find, if she looked?

Yet she could hardly ask one of the servants to search on her behalf, and she had to have the account books. Perhaps she would find a sum of money secreted there, too. Her father always seemed to have money available, and where else would he keep it but in his desk? Her hand reached for the nearest drawer, then drew back again. Taking a deep breath, she slid open first one drawer, then another.

There were many items of little interest — some writing equipment, a leather strap, some lozenge boxes. A drawer of bills, each marked in her father’s tiny handwriting:
‘Paid’
and the date. No personal letters at all. She found a book at the back of one drawer which she did not recognise, so she set it on top of the desk to read later. Her search was partially successful, yielding a pile of account books, each neatly labelled with the dates, and a set of keys. Three drawers remained locked, but no key fitted. She sighed in vexation. 

However, there was no point in repining. The missing keys would surely be found sooner or later, perhaps in her father’s dressing room, or hidden in the pocket of a coat or waistcoat. In the meantime, she set about examining the bills her mother had left unpaid. One by one she read them in mounting horror, as she began to realise that two hundred pounds was not nearly enough to cover all the reckonings. The bill for coal alone amounted to more than half of her money. Then there were the servants to pay as well. How was she to manage?

She was pacing anxiously about the room when the crunching of gravel on the drive announced the arrival of morning callers. A few minutes later, Young entered.

“Miss Endercott and Mr Burford are here, Miss Belle. Shall I show them into the drawing room and light the fire there?”

“No, the fire is already lit in here. Let us not waste coal on another so early in the day. Please show them in here.”

Mr Burford entered eagerly, and looked all round the room before turning to Belle with disappointment on his face. “You are alone today, Miss Belle?”

“Yes, everyone else is out enjoying the sunshine. We did not expect anyone this morning.”

“We too were taking advantage of the improved weather,” Miss Endercott said. “Having come practically to your gates, it would have seemed discourteous to turn away without calling.” She looked around the room with lively interest. “Well, well, so this is where your father hid himself away. And not a picture anywhere on the walls.”

“He always said that this was a place for thought and work, and pictures would distract him,” Belle said.

“Which is precisely the purpose of a picture, in my opinion, to be a distraction, for what is the point of looking at wallpaper? It is very pleasant wallpaper, to be sure, but still it is merely a pretty pattern. Now a landscape or two would make all the difference. You are well, my dear? You look a little harassed.”

“I have been wrestling with the household accounts, and I do not get on at all well. But that is of no interest to you.”

“On the contrary,” Miss Endercott said, with a bark of laughter. “I can assure you that everything is of interest to me, child. You need not speak of it if you do not wish, but since Mr Wiseman’s quarrel with his wife the other day, and the cause of it, are widely known, I may guess at the reason for your employment.”

Belle laughed. “I might have supposed that you would already know all about it. There are no secrets in a small village. It is true, there are many unpaid bills, and I fear I have not enough money to settle them. I do not know what I am to do.”

“Not enough money! Your father had an income in excess of three thousand pounds a year, and he was not extravagant. Indeed, I should have said he lived well below his income.”

Belle was startled by this pronouncement, and knew not how to answer.

Mr Burford said, “Miss Endercott, I do not understand how you should say so, for you cannot know what any man spends on sugar or beef.”

She chuckled, her gruff voice making a low rumble. “No, indeed. But I can count, Mr Burford. I know that Allamont Hall has only one footman, and one groom, and no laundry-maid, and only four horses, and many in the village can remember the time of Mr Walter Allamont, Miss Allamont’s grandfather, and that the household was much larger then. But your father was a careful manager, Miss Allamont, so I do not imagine for one moment that his economies were from straitened circumstances. He must have been very much in funds.”

“But I do not at all know where the money might be,” Belle said. “I have found none here, and there is nothing left in the bank.”

“There are several banks in Brinchester,” Mr Burford said. “It may be that he has another account elsewhere. Or several, perhaps.”

“I do not think so,” Belle said. “Mr Martin said that my father greatly disliked and mistrusted banks.”

“Then he will have coins in the house,” Mr Burford said. “You have a set of keys there, Miss Allamont. What do they unlock?”

“I have not the least idea. They do not fit the locks on these drawers.”

“Aha, locked drawers. Now, the system my uncles employ is to keep money in a locked drawer, and the key to
that
is hidden somewhere. One keeps it under the rug before the fire…” He knelt down and scrabbled about under the corners of the rug. “Hmm, not there. An empty vase, perhaps.”

He moved about the room, looking inside this and under that, but found nothing.

“Did your father take snuff?” Miss Endercott said.

“Never, that I knew of.”

“Yet he has a snuff jar on the mantle above the fire, which is quite the wrong place for snuff to be kept.”

Mr Burford hurried across the room, picked up the jar and shook it. “There is something inside, but it does not rattle as a key would. May I open it, Miss Allamont?” When she assented, he unscrewed the lid and shook out a small velvet bag. He opened it and triumphantly produced a key.

“There, Miss Allamont! Surely that will unlock one, at least, of the desk drawers.”

It fitted all of them, turning with a smooth, well-oiled movement. She slid each drawer open. One contained a locked journal, one a small metal box and the third was empty. Belle lifted the box and set it on top of the desk.

“This is so heavy, it must contain money!” she said, unable to keep the excitement out of her voice. “Oh. But it is locked. Everything is locked.” Quickly she tried all the keys, but none opened it. “Oh, that is very disappointing. Mr Burford, do you have any more ideas for hiding places?”

“For keys? A key may be hidden anywhere, and judging by the size of the lock, this would be a small, delicate one. I have not yet examined the desk itself. May I?”

Belle stood and with great care, Mr Burford methodically examined the chair, the sides of the desk and beneath it, and every object on the desk. “This book was in the desk?”

“Yes. I do not know why it was not on the bookcase with the others.”

“One of my uncles kept a key inside a book, with the pages cut away.”

“What a dreadful thing to do to a book!”

“I thought so, too, but it was not a book of great interest. May I, Miss Allamont?”

“Of course.”

He opened the book and began flipping through the pages. “Oh!” He went red to the very roots of his hair. “Oh dear. You have not looked inside this, Miss Allamont?”

“No.”

“Nor should you. It is… my goodness, what a thing for you to find!”

Miss Endercott chuckled. “Am I to take it that the book is unsuitable for ladies?”

“Quite, quite unsuitable. Indeed, I would venture to suggest that the fire is the best place for it.”

“You wish to burn a book?” Belle said, startled. “Is it so bad?”

“Dreadful, utterly dreadful. I am not easily shocked but…really!”

“If there is no key hidden within it, then you had better put it on the fire.”

He did so, still beetroot red, while Miss Endercott chuckled again, and Belle wondered what book her father would buy that could so shock Mr Burford. While it burned, Mr Burford resumed his examination of the desk, beginning with the insides of the previously locked drawers.

“Aha!” From the recesses of the empty drawer he triumphantly produced a small silver key. “There you are! Hanging on a little hook in a corner. Very easy to miss. I expect that will do the trick.”

So it did, and Belle lifted the lid of the money box with an exclamation of delight. Within, she found velvet-lined sections containing coins of various denominations. With Mr Burford’s aid, she added up the values, but to her intense disappointment, it amounted to not much above fifty pounds.

“It is still not enough.” She sighed. “And look, here is another key which fits no lock we have yet found.”

“If you wish, I can explore a little further,” Mr Burford said. “I had one uncle who kept a bottle of port in a recess in the arm of his chair, and another who kept valuable items in a false bottom of an ottoman.”

“I should be much obliged to you, Mr Burford.”

“It would be my pleasure,” he said, and so it seemed, for he crawled on the floor and shuffled beneath the furniture with great enthusiasm. Miss Endercott encouraged him by suggesting increasingly unlikely hiding places.

BOOK: Belle (The Daughters of Allamont Hall Book 2)
12.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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