Authors: Anna Jacobs
Tags: #Historical Fiction/Romance
Martha sat bolt upright on a wooden chair in the lawyer’s office listening to Mr Droffington read her father’s will, though what he said only confirmed what each of the three persons present already knew.
“ .. and to my beloved daughters, Martha and Penelope Merridene of Rosemount Lodge, Woodbourne, I leave the residue of my estate, to be divided equally between them. I am aware that this is not as much as I would have wished, since my naval pension will die with me, so I commend my daughters to the protection of their cousin, Edward Merridene, of Poolerby Hall, Leicestershire, to whom I also bequeath the gold signet ring that has belonged to the head of the family for nearly two hundred years.”
Edward nodded his head in satisfaction and turned to smile reassuringly at his two cousins. “You may rely upon me
Martha decided that Edward’s resemblance to a rabbit was increasing rather than decreasing with the years. As if she would let
manage her life!
Mr Droffington lowered the paper from which he had been reading. “There should be no difficulty in settling affairs within a few weeks, my dear ladies. Not a complicated estate, since there is no property involved.”
Edward nodded. “Might I ask—as head of the family—how much you estimate will actually be realised for my poor cousins?”
How dare he call us “poor cousins”, Martha thought, anger momentarily overcoming her grief. She opened her mouth to protest but closed it again as Penelope gave her a quick nudge.
“Well—er—not quite two hundred pounds, I’m afraid. And the furniture, of course.”
“As little as that, eh?”
“Unfortunately, yes. Captain Merridene was not an extravagant gentleman, but his private means were small. He only rented the house and the naval pension was not exactly generous.”
Edward shook his head and looked at his cousins pityingly.
Martha scowled at him. “We had the best of fathers and I wouldn’t have changed a single thing about him!” Which was not quite true. Her father had never been good with money and his unthinking generosity had sometimes made for difficulties, given their restricted budget.
An uneasy silence followed her words then Mr Droffington cleared his throat and continued, “The lease on the Lodge will expire in December, but as it would be beyond the ladies’ means to renew it, this is very timely. Of course, they each have a small annuity from their mother’s marriage settlement, so they will not be entirely penniless.”
Martha listened indignantly to the two men discussing the situation as if she and Penelope were not there—or were too stupid to understand money.
Edward shook his head sadly. “I cannot consider a hundred pounds a year each anything more than pin money. However, you may rely upon me, my dear cousins, to deal with all the business details and supply the masculine guidance which you have sadly lost with my uncle’s passing.” He slid the signet ring on to his finger and held his hand up to admire this symbol of his new position in the family, then stood up to signify that it was time to leave.
Martha found the sight of her father’s ring on Edward’s plump white hand painful in the extreme and was unable to keep silent a second longer. “That will not be necessary!” Her voice came out more loudly than she had intended and both gentlemen gaped at her.
“I beg your pardon?” Edward said, looking puzzled.
“I said: that will not be necessary,” she repeated, standing up and facing the two of them. “My sister and I are quite capable of settling any business arising from Father’s will ourselves.”
“You had much better leave such things to those who understand them, Cousin.” Edward drew himself up to his full five foot five inches and stared resentfully across the table. There was something very unladylike about such a strong-looking woman. Penelope was slightly taller than he was, but Martha must be all of five foot nine! She was handsome enough—or she would be if she did something with herself—for she had regular features and hair of an attractive chestnut hue. But he didn’t approve of the aggressive jut to her chin and he preferred Penelope’s slenderness and softer prettiness to Martha’s generous curves and look of strength.
The chin was even more pronounced as she continued, “You forget that it was I who handled all our business matters after Mother died because Father could never understand accounts, so I can probably tell you to the farthing how we’re left.”
“My uncle might have allowed you to organise the
, Cousin Martha, but that is quite different, believe me, from managing one’s income! And I must insist . . ”
Penelope swayed and clutched her sister’s arm. “Oh dear! I’m afraid I feel rather faint! I . . ”
In the bustle of getting Penelope out to Edward’s carriage, further discussion was postponed, but Martha knew her sister had not felt faint—neither of them was prone to that sort of thing—and had done this on purpose to prevent a quarrel. Well, perhaps it would be as well to discuss matters privately, but she had no intention of biting her tongue if Edward continued to speak to them in such a patronising manner and she would definitely not be giving her affairs into his hands.
* * * *
Once back at Rosemount Lodge the two ladies served tea in the front parlour and as nothing further was said about financial matters, Edward was able to give himself up to enjoyment of the feather-light scones. “By Jove! My own cook could not have done better!”
“Do have another!” Penelope said quickly. To her relief, her sister only watched grimly as Edward consumed a second scone and followed it with a generous slice of plum cake.
Afterwards Penelope invited Edward to take a turn round the garden with her and listened meekly to his views on how
would have set out the vegetable patch. With true heroism she refrained from interrupting or pointing out the glaring faults in his schemes, which took no account of the prevailing winds or the amount of shade in each area.
Well aware of what her sister was doing and grateful for the respite from Edward’s inanities, Martha went to help their maid, Sally, prepare an evening meal which would not disgrace them in their cousin’s eyes. When she heard Penelope bring Edward back into the house, she went upstairs to change for dinner, donning her one black evening gown.
Her sister joined her a short time later, similarly clad but with her hair still loose about her shoulders. “Could you help me put up my hair?”
“Of course, love.” Martha pinned her sister’s soft brown waves into a high chignon twisting the shorter hair at each side of the face into curls. Penelope was calm again, with that distant look on her face. Martha wished, as she had so many times, that her sister’s fiancé had not died so suddenly. The look of bright interest and anticipation which used to light up her sister’s face had rarely returned, though it was well over two years since that dreadful day when Mr Medson had arrived to tell them that his son had died of a putrid sore throat—just one month before Penelope and he were to have been married.
Banishing such depressing memories firmly, Martha stood back. “There. You look charming, Pen. You always were the pretty one of us two. I wish we could afford a new evening dress for you, though. Even the vicar’s wife is wearing wider sleeves than ours now.”
Penelope stood up and gave Martha a hug. “Thank you. No one can put up my hair as well as you. And I don’t care about fashion any more than you do, as long as I’m decently clad.”
Martha sat down in front of the mirror to attend to her own coiffure, clicking her tongue in exasperation at the unruly mass lying on her shoulders. “Strands will escape, however firmly I pin it back,” she grumbled.
“If you didn’t try to push your hair into such a severe style, it might behave itself better. I wish you would let me—”
“I can’t be bothered to fuss. There. That’s the best I can do. At least it’s neater now.”
“Why will you never let me help you look your best?”
“What’s the point? At twenty-eight I’m well beyond trying to attract a husband and a neat hairstyle is easier to manage. Don’t look at me like that, Pen. You won’t change my mind.”
Penelope sighed, but refrained from arguing. At the door she stopped again to say, “Do try to bite your tongue tonight, dear. Edward can’t actually
his wishes upon us, after all, and he’ll soon be gone.”
“I’ll try, I really will, but I can’t promise anything. He’s such a fool. And I’m not—” Martha’s voice wobbled for a minute, “—not quite myself at the moment.” She took a deep breath and led the way downstairs.
* * * *
“I have been considering your position,” Edward announced abruptly after spooning up the last of his second helping of stewed apples and cream.
Martha looked up, her own spoon poised half-way to her mouth, ready to take issue with the idea that their position was any concern of his, but he didn’t give her time to protest.
“Although you are not precisely young any more, it would still not be seemly for you to keep house without the support of a gentleman’s presence. I am not, in any case, a believer in female independence.” He waved a nearly empty wine glass at them. “But you are not to worry! No, indeed! I spoke to my dearest Rosemary before I left the Hall and we are as one in this, as in everything else. We shall be happy to offer you a home.” He sat back and smiled benignly at them.
He spoke as though they would be reduced to starvation or the workhouse otherwise, Martha thought, when they had a perfectly adequate income if they lived modestly and moved to a smaller house or took rooms. But even if they didn’t have enough money, she would rather hoe turnips than live with their cousin! Far rather!
Edward continued to explain the situation. “Rosemary and I are, as you know, blessed with three children.”
Poor little things!
They already favour their parents.
“I am happy to inform you that we expect another addition to our family in three weeks’ time. In these circumstances, my dear wife will positively welcome the support of her two cousins, for she does tend to become a trifle out of spirits when she is—ahem—” he lowered his voice, “great with child.”
As he seemed to expect some comment, Martha managed a “Mmm”.
ladies in the house, I’m sure we shall be able to dispense with the services of the housekeeper. That and the savings on hiring a governess—for we all know how well-read you are, my dear Martha—will more than compensate us financially. So you need have
fear of being a burden.”
Both sisters gaped at him, astounded by this meanness.
“And you will have your annuities,” he continued, “which will provide you with enough pin-money to buy the material to make yourselves the simple gowns which will be in keeping with your new station in life. So you see, it all works out very neatly.” He leaned back in his chair, drained the last of the wine and beamed at them.
Martha could hold back no longer. “Thank you, Edward, but I’m afraid we must decline your generous offer!” She had the pleasure of watching his smile fade as her words sank in.
Decline my offer! But—but—you cannot! Whatever will Rosemary say? She is quite counting on your help, as am I. Our eldest son had been growing somewhat naughty lately—such a spirited lad, dear little Ned!—and he needs a firmer hand than poor Rosemary—the most sensitive of females!—can provide.”
“Well, I’m sorry but we do decline, Edward!” In response to a well-aimed kick from her sister, Martha tried to modify her tone and find more conciliatory words, but could only repeat, “We are, however—as dear Penelope would agree—grateful.” The word nearly choked her.
For a mean-spirited offer like that! Well, she had no intention of becoming the unpaid slave of her Cousin Edward and his wife, thank you very much.
Penelope stood up. “This has been such a wearing day and my head is aching abominably. I do think we ought to postpone further discussion until tomorrow, my dear cousin.”
Martha pushed her chair back abruptly. Pen was right. They were both tired and sad, not in the mood to manage a polite conversation with their fool of a cousin. She took their candlesticks from the mantelpiece, allowed Edward to light them with the taper that stood ready near the fire, and then went upstairs with her sister.
“We’ll talk in the morning,” Penelope told her soothingly as they went to their own rooms. “Early.”
Martha nodded, so weary now she could hardly set one foot in front of the other. Tears filled her eyes as she passed the door of what had been her father’s bedroom and she whisked into her own room before her sister could see them.
* * * *
In the bedroom at the end of the landing Penelope went to stand by the window, drawing the curtains back and staring out across the moonlit gardens. Her father’s death had made her think very deeply about their personal situation. Since John’s death she had felt only half-alive, deprived of the future she’d looked forward to. Now, she knew she must pull herself together and become stronger, more like she used to be. She did not intend to be a burden on Martha.