Authors: Dorothy Eden
Tags: #Fiction, #Gothic, #Romance, #Suspense
Her own rebellion was dead. Or perhaps it was merely taking a different form. From now on she was to be the champion of these two orphans, and do her best to make them happy in an unwelcoming household. That was to be her purpose in life. That, and perhaps the visit of Adam Marsh to the moors…
‘I don’t know what’s happened to you, Miss Fanny,’ Hannah muttered. ‘You’re talking like an old woman. And you’re flushed, as if you have a fever. Do you feel quite well?’
‘I’ve never felt so well,’ said Fanny, with truth.
ETTERS ARRIVED FOR EDGAR
Davenport late that afternoon. One bore a foreign postmark, one came from London.
Edgar recognised the handwriting on each. He opened the one with the Chinese postmark first. He believed in facing bad news quickly.’
It was, as he had suspected, from Hamish Barlow, the attorney who had first written to him about Oliver’s death and the trust imposed in him regarding the two children. He fully expected it to contain a list of his brother’s debts. This was not the case. Although the debts undoubtedly existed, Mr Hamish Barlow was, surprisingly enough, going to acquaint Edgar personally with them.
By the time you receive this letter I shall be on my way to England. I have a passage on the tea clipper, the
, which, all being well, expects to make the journey in something like twelve weeks. So you may think of expecting me about the end of August or early in September. I have various business affairs to attend to, but I will not deceive you that the journey is being made chiefly in regard to settling your brother’s estate. It has aspects which I would prefer to acquaint you with by word of mouth.
Also, I made a promise to your brother and his charming wife, now so tragically gone from us, that I would satisfy myself as to the safe arrival of the children who should be with you on receipt of this.
I sincerely trust they completed their journey without mishap. The Chinese woman, Ching Mei, is of the highest integrity, and intelligence.
I am looking forward, my dear Mr Davenport, to making your acquaintance, and this I propose to do as speedily as possible after my arrival in London. I shall inform you when this event takes place.
‘H’mm,’ Edgar muttered, throwing the letter down.
He opened the other one. It was from his stockbroker. It informed him that much to the writer’s regret it looked as if the Maxim Banking Company, an enterprise in which Edgar had invested a substantial sum of money, was, contrary to paying a dividend, likely to show a loss on the year’s trading. The writer recommended salvaging as much money as possible at once, as he foresaw panic among the shareholders.
‘I am sorry to say I predict your loss will be as much as seventy-five per cent, or even more,’ the letter concluded.
Upstairs, Louisa Davenport was dressing for dinner. Since Hannah was not yet back from London, Dora, the new maid, was called in to help. She was slow and clumsy and terribly nervous. Louisa had little patience with inexperience. She increased the girl’s confusion by ordering her to do too many things.
‘Lay out my grey silk. No, not that. That’s blue. Where are your eyes? The crinoline. Put it on the bed. Now come and lace me. How strong are you?’
Dora looked at her skinny arms. She was undergrown, plain, with crooked teeth, and only fourteen years old. She had just been promoted to the upstairs after two years of washing dishes and scurrying hither and thither for cook in the kitchen. The mistress had asked her if she were fond of children and she had said yes, because how could you say anything else? Anyway, it was true. There were ten brothers and sisters in the cottage on the moors and she found she had missed them painfully when she had come to the big house. She had been pleased and excited to be told that if she wished she could move upstairs and help to care for the new arrivals from far-off China.
But she hadn’t known that would bring her to do anything so terrifying as lacing the mistress.
‘I’m very wiry, ma’am,’ she said nervously.
Louisa had found the new fashion of the crinoline much to her liking. The only drawback was that it necessitated a neat waist, and that she had not got.
‘H’mm,’ she said to Dora sceptically, ‘We’ll see. Take these two ends and pull. Oh, good gracious, girl, you haven’t the strength of a fly. Amelia, is that you?’ There had been a tap at the door. ‘Come and help this incompetent creature.’
Amelia came bursting in, and promptly began to giggle.
‘There’s no need for impertinence, miss.’
‘I’m sorry, Mamma, but you do look funny. Do you really want these awfully tight? You know it makes your face flush.’
‘I shall have only six courses at dinner,’ said her mother. ‘Then I shall be perfectly comfortable. You know we have Sir Giles and Lady Mowatt coming.’
‘They’re so dreary,’ Amelia complained. ‘The governor of a prison. Uh!’
‘Sir Giles is a man of, importance. Your father likes him.’
‘Papa! But when is there going to be someone for
to like? Someone young. Doesn’t Papa realise I’m grown-up.’
‘Of course he realises it. Don’t be so stupid.’
‘He never seemed to notice Fanny was. He never did anything about her. And now she’s getting old.’
‘Dora,’ said Louisa, ‘give me the hairbrush. I shall do my own hair. Miss Amelia will help me. You may go.’
Dora bobbed thankfully and withdrew. Louisa turned crossly to her daughter.
‘Haven’t I told you before not to discuss family affairs in front of the servants?’
‘Oh, Dora,’ said Amelia. ‘She won’t gossip because no one listens to her. And Mamma, it’s true what I said. Fanny has hardly ever met a young man, and now I’m seventeen I don’t intend that to happen to me.’
Louisa surveyed her daughter with mingled indulgence and criticism. It was a pity she wasn’t ravishingly pretty. But her skin was good and she had animation. She would never be left sitting silent in a corner. Her fair hair tied in ringlets on either side of her face was quite charming. Being a little over-plump suited her style. She was a presentable daughter. There was only one trouble and that was one her father refused to admit or understand. Her looks faded to insignificance beside Fanny’s. Fanny, when her emotions were aroused, had a way of looking incandescent. She reduced Amelia’s chatter and smiles and fluttering lashes to the gauche tricks of a schoolgirl.
It was all very well for Edgar, with his exaggerated sense of fairness and responsibility, to insist on the girls being treated like sisters. But Edgar was a man, and men were blind to the subtler points of feminine behaviour. He had to be made to realise that this was Amelia’s year, and Fanny must be kept in the background.
For instance, that extravagant unnecessary gift to Fanny of the sapphire pendant had been an error of major importance. It would only serve to make the girl flaunt her looks even more. Edgar refused to see that. But then Edgar always had been stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid; thought Louisa, the comb snapping in two in her clenched hands.
Amelia sprang towards her.
‘Mamma, have you hurt yourself?’
‘Of course I haven’t.’ Louisa laid down the broken comb calmly. ‘I was only wondering why you compare yourself with Fanny. The circumstances are entirely different. Your father and I will certainly make it our business to see that you meet plenty of young men, if not here, then in London.’
‘It occurred to me we might open our house there for your ball. But that will depend on your father.’
Amelia clapped her plump small very white hands. (Some day someone would say to her, ‘You have very little hands like water lilies, see, just curving open.’ And then he would bend his head and kiss her palm.)
‘Papa will do anything for me!’
‘Will he, indeed. You know I won’t permit him to spoil you. And don’t be too confident. We have so much worry with George now, and these wretched children arriving are another problem.’
‘Fanny will look after them,’ Amelia said blithely. ‘George will help her. He’ll love it. His adored Fanny!’
Louisa frowned. ‘Don’t speak like that. I won’t have this stupid infatuation of George’s encouraged. It’s nothing but an aspect of his illness. I’d ask you to remember, Amelia, that you are not the only person in the world whose happiness has to be considered.’
‘Oh, Mamma! It will take so little to make me happy. Just a ball in London, and a husband I truly love. And a little money, of course, and jewels, and—and—’
Amelia had her face pressed to the window. The moors, dark fold on fold, stretched away to the edge of the earth. The sky was colourless, like river water. There was the far-off cry of a bird. A heron from the lake, perhaps, or an owl. Or the trapped bird in the chimney that Grandmamma was always talking about.
Suddenly Amelia shivered. At dusk she hated the moors, she hated the thought of the grim grey prison ten miles away in its bleak setting. She hadn’t minded so much when the prisoners had been French. That had seemed romantic. She had imagined them singing
and wanting to die for their country. But now the cold dank cells were occupied by the riff-raff from the streets of London and Liverpool, thieves, forgers, would-be murderers…Sometimes one escaped and the countryside was in terror, with the hounds baying in the mist—for an escaper always chose a time of thick mist when his capture would be doubly difficult. Amelia would imagine she saw the bearded desperate face at her window, and would be torn between terror and a terrible fascination. If it ever happened that a prisoner did appear at her window, would she scream, or hide him beneath her bed and temporarily have the violent creature at her mercy? She didn’t know why such thoughts came into her head. She only knew that they made her long to get away from here. She would marry and have six children and live in London where one could go to the theatre or a dinner party every night. And there would always be lights, and no lonely night wind.
‘Mamma!’ she turned slowly, her voice intense, ‘I would do anything to get those things.’
Her mother was clasping her topaz necklace—good enough for the governor of Dartmoor prison—round her plump neck.
‘What woman wouldn’t! It’s always been her aim in life, a good husband and security.’
‘You got them, Mamma. You must be very happy.’
Louisa’s mouth went down at the corners. Happiness didn’t consist of a house full of servants, a wardrobe overflowing with expensive clothes, a warm bed, and a husband beside her who sometimes, but not now so frequently, woke to fumble beneath her nightgown. No, that wasn’t happiness, she realised. But just as her mother hadn’t pointed out that fact to her, she had no intention of pointing it out to her daughter.
‘Of course I’m happy. Don’t look so worried, child. You’ll acquire all these things. But the effort will be as much mine as yours. I still have connections, even though I’ve been buried in the moors for so long. I’ll do what I can with your father. Now run along and see if Grandmamma is coming down to dinner. If she is, see that she’s wearing her cashmere shawl, and that her hair is tidy. Sometimes I believe she deliberately makes herself look like a scarecrow.’
Amelia, her spirits recovered, giggled. ‘She does. She’s naughty. George is the only one who can make her do things.’
Louisa frowned again, remembering the many ways in which her mother spoiled her handsome grandson. But she merely said sharply, ‘Amelia, don’t gallop out of a room like that. Learn to glide along quietly and gracefully.’
Amelia paused. ‘Like Fanny, Mamma?’
‘Nothing of the kind! I have never advised you to model yourself on Fanny.’
‘I never have,’ said Amelia blithely. ‘Anyway, Fanny can dash about when she’s in a temper. You ought to see her then. Oh, Papa—I’m just going.’
Edgar came into the room, scarcely noticing Amelia’s departure. He was deep in thought.
‘My dear, you haven’t begun to dress. You must hurry. You know what a stickler for punctuality Sir Giles is. I suppose it comes from running a prison—’
‘Louisa, don’t chatter! Can’t I have a little peace.’
Louisa looked at him in surprise. He was normally a good-tempered and placid man.
‘What’s the matter? Has something happened?’
‘Only a trivial but worrying thing. My brother’s attorney from Shanghai is seeing fit to pay us a visit. I must say I regard that as a little nosey-parkering. Probably he imagines me as improvident as Oliver. But even if I were, there’s nothing he can do about that. My brother’s last instructions must be carried out.’
‘How old is he?’
Edgar stared at his wife perplexedly. He had never been able to understand the way a woman’s mind worked, and had come to dismiss the whole process as unworthy of serious attention.
‘Whatever has his age got to do with it?’
‘Is he married? Or perhaps unaccompanied by his wife?’
‘What are you thinking of?’
‘What you should be thinking of, my love. Had you forgotten Amelia comes out this year? We shall require every eligible man possible if we are to have successful parties. Don’t men ever think of these things?’
‘Don’t women ever think of anything else!’
‘Now, Edgar, please don’t get irritable. Amelia is your daughter and you must do your best by her.’
‘Confound it, I’ve promised her a very generous marriage settlement.’
‘So you have, love.’ Louisa gave his hand a perfunctory caress. ‘But a marriage settlement is of little use without a husband. I really think we must open the London house—’
‘No! That’s out of the question.’
‘Don’t argue with me. I say it’s out of the question.’
‘Oh dear. Amelia will be so disappointed.’
‘Have you been discussing it with Amelia? Without consulting me?’
His wife’s full eyelids drooped slyly.
‘I’m afraid we shall need to be persuaded that there are advantages in having a ball here.’
‘The London house hasn’t been lived in for years. You’d find that everything needed re-decorating and refurnishing. As it is, Murchison lives there and keeps a couple of rooms available for me, and that’s all that’s necessary. Advantages! My dear Louisa, it would only be a matter of several thousand pounds more to have the ball in London.’