Read The Uncatchable Miss Faversham Online

Authors: Elizabeth Moss

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #Historical Romance

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BOOK: The Uncatchable Miss Faversham
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    The old retainer had seemed too shaken by her unexpected firmness to bother arguing before, but at this latest order, he blinked and rallied. ‘I sent a man down there first thing this morning, Miss Faversham. The potholes should be filled in by the end of the day.’

    ‘Excellent, Foster.’ She gave him her most winning smile. ‘Once the library is unlocked, could you arrange for a small fire to be lit in there? No doubt the room will be damp if no one has been in there for years.’

    Eleanor folded her list twice over and tucked it into her pocket. Her dear friend Louisa was right; this was her house, and she had been away too long. She was no longer the flighty young girl who had left five years ago, eager for new adventures and friendships in London, and determined not to be pinned down by a proposal of marriage, however enticing her suitor.

    She was a grown woman of twenty-three, the wealthy and independent mistress of Faversham Hall, and she needed to start behaving accordingly.

    ‘Now I intend to take a walk out and inspect the estate. Please tell Mrs Foster nothing too elaborate for luncheon. Bread and cheese will suit me very well, or a bowl of soup.’

    Once the old man had gone about his errands, Eleanor stepped to the large hall windows overlooking the park and tried to open one of them. The catch was rusty, but eventually she managed to wrench the window open and stood there a moment, breathing in the damp March air.

    There was a hedge of rose-bushes below the old leaded window. She remembered the roses as glorious in full summer, though tied back now and rather scraggy-looking in early spring.

    It had rained during the night and the sky was overcast; not too wet for walking though, she hoped, watching a spider tentatively cross its rain-spangled web.

    Satisfied that her father’s library should be unlocked and ready for human habitation by the afternoon, Eleanor stepped briskly upstairs to change into her walking dress. She had promised herself an invigorating walk about the grounds before lunch, and if there was any memory in her head of her last, tumultuous day in this house, she kept it firmly at bay.

    Meeting Lord Sallinger again last night had been a serious blow to her peace of mind. But she had shut him out of her mind for years and was determined not to weaken now. Her only thoughts at this time should be for her father’s tenant and her own former guardian, Dora Lovett, whom she had been remiss enough not to visit for the past five years. Though indeed, she had never really been that close to Mrs Lovett, and had often been at a loss to know why she had been placed in that lady’s care on arriving in England from Jamaica, since even at the tender age of eighteen she had been accustomed to take care of herself.

    Now that she knew the dreadful truth – that Mrs Lovett had been her father’s live-in mistress whenever he revisited England – she longed to confront her father with his outrageous behaviour.

    Except that her father too was dead, and far beyond her demands to know why he had betrayed her mother in such a disrespectful manner.

    Eleanor glanced through the windows on the first floor landing, remembering how beautiful the lawns and gardens of Faversham Hall were in every season. Today, the grey clouds had blown away and a faint, watery sunshine was struggling through the trees.

    What better time to visit a few of her old haunts about the estate and see how Reynolds had been managing the grounds in her absence?

 

It was refreshing to be out in the sharp country air, so much less stifling than that of the traffic-filled London streets to which she was accustomed. Her dear maid Suzanna had tried to persuade her into a smart, lace-trimmed, blue velvet walking dress, but this was rural Warwickshire, not Regent Street.

    Instead she had picked out a coarse linen gown of uncertain pink, with a thick winter pelisse to keep out the chill and a sturdy pair of walking boots, found lurking at the back of a cupboard in her old bedroom. A plain bonnet, adorned with only a white ribbon, had completed the outfit.

    Thus conservatively attired, Eleanor drew a determined breath of fresh air at the head of the drive and set off on her mission of exploration, avoiding deep puddles left by the potholes.

    She took the sloping path down towards the lake, admiring the ancient tangle of hazel and hawthorn in the hedgerows. The path ran alongside the road to the village for a short distance, and through the thick hedgerow she caught an occasional, tantalising glimpse of white on the other side.

    Some other lady out walking like herself, perhaps?

    From the height, and the way the figure seemed to skip at times rather than walk, she soon guessed it must be a child. One of the labourers’ daughters, no doubt – on her way home from visiting her father at work in the fields, perhaps.

    The hedgerow thinned at a gate, and at last she was able to see the other walker clearly. It was indeed a child. A young girl of about eight or nine years, to be precise.

    Sallow-faced, in an old white dress with a slightly muddied hem, her reddish-brown hair tied back with a ribbon, the girl stopped and gawped at Eleanor on the other side of the gate. She was clearly astonished at the sight of a stranger in the grounds of Faversham Hall.

    ‘Good morning!’ Eleanor called cheerfully over the gate to the little girl. ‘Did I give you a shock? I do apologise if I did. My name is Miss Faversham. It seemed like such a lovely morning for a walk, I could not stay indoors a moment longer. Pray, what is your name?’

    ‘Please, miss,’ the girl bobbed a clumsy curtsey, ‘I’m Jemima Underwood.’

    ‘That’s a charming name.’ Wanting to get closer, she lifted the hem of her gown and stepped cautiously through the mud ruts until she reached the gate. ‘Do you live in the village, Jemima?’

    ‘Yes, miss.’

    She looked at the small doll cradled in Jemima’s arms. It was no mean rag or peg doll, but a proper doll with a lovingly carved wooden face under a pink bonnet, and black wooden shoes sticking out from under a heavily-frilled pink smock. ‘But what a marvellous doll you have there! Such a pretty face. What is her name?’

    The girl blushed proudly, holding the doll up for Eleanor to admire. ‘I calls her Sally, coz his lordship give her me at Christmas.’

    Eleanor was startled by this candid revelation. His lordship?

    ‘Do you mean Lord Sallinger?’

    Jemima nodded enthusiastically. She had a slight lisp, and now that Eleanor was close enough, she could see that the poor girl had one hazel eye and one green eye, one of which squinted.

    ‘He give my little brother a wooden hobby-horse, with a real horse-hair mane – from his own horses! Though Ned’s too young to ride it proper.’

    ‘That was very kind of Lord Sallinger.’

    ‘Oh, his lordship’s always bringing us presents,’ the girl gushed innocently, oblivious to Eleanor’s astonishment. ‘And Mama too. He brings her meat, and flowers, and once, he brought us a black hen! We calls her Henny Penny – just like the rhyme. She didn’t half put up a fight when he first brung her into the back yard. But now she’s settled nicely and gives us eggs regular.’

    Eleanor had been putting two and two together, based on the girl’s naïve descriptions of his lordship’s many kindnesses, and coming up with a rather infamous and illicit arrangement of which that nobleman ought to be heartily ashamed. But this unlikely image of the proud Nathaniel Sallinger with a struggling hen under his arm was too much for Eleanor.

    She burst out laughing, then clapped a hand to her mouth in immediate chagrin. The girl was staring now, a look of disapproval in her mismatched eyes.

    ‘I’m sorry,’ Eleanor managed, sobering hurriedly, ‘but what you say just doesn’t fit with what I know of Lord Sallinger.’

    Jemima drew back a little, and her face closed up, as though she realised she had said too much and might get in trouble for it.

    ‘Sorry, miss. I best get home. I was only meant to be fetching a pie up to old Mr Granby. It’s washday and Papa will need me for lighting of the fire.’

    Eleanor frowned. Amidst all these lavish tales of Sallinger’s gifts for his mistress and what might possibly be his illegitimate daughter from a youthful mistake, she had never envisaged a husband in the mix.

    ‘Your father?’

    ‘He … I have to go. Beg pardon, miss.’

    Jemima curtseyed again, avoiding her gaze. With ‘Sally’ clutched to her chest, she hurried off down the lane towards the village, her light footsteps soon inaudible.

    Perplexed by this encounter, Eleanor carried on more slowly down the path towards the lake. From the odd rumour that had reached her ears in Town, she knew it was perfectly possible that Lord Sallinger could be keeping a mistress in the village that neighboured his great house. Such an action would be outrageously indiscreet, of course. But it was said that Sallinger had grown in arrogance since inheriting the title and fortune on his father’s death, as well as becoming a bit of a hermit, rarely to be seen in company except as his sister’s companion.

    However, even his arrogance as lord of the manor could not excuse keeping a married woman as his mistress so openly. For if he was bringing this woman and her children gifts on his visits to the house, their illicit relationship could hardly remain a secret. Not in such a tiny village, where even the slightest misbehaviour by a married woman would be noted and commented upon.

    Eleanor shrugged and quickened her pace, lifting a flushed face to the air. It did not matter to her one jot what Lord Nathaniel Sallinger chose to do. The infuriating man had not changed since the day she left, staring at her last night with those dark piercing eyes, leaving her prickling with unexpected heat and confusion.

    And the way he had turned away from her so rudely, so abruptly - no, it was clear that he still hated her.

    Besides, if that pretty little girl was his illegitimate daughter, she must have been born several years before Eleanor’s own arrival from Jamaica. It was well-known that Sallinger had been an intensely private young man in his youth but could he really have kept such a secret from her?

    And yet, why not?

    Her own father had kept the existence of his mistress a secret from his family all his life, and had even mischievously arranged for Mrs Lovett to chaperone Eleanor on her arrival from Jamaica – though he must have known how polite society would whisper. It was only much later, learning the ways of the world she had joined, that Eleanor had realised what their relationship must have been.

    She joined the main drive, pushing both her father and Nathaniel firmly out of her mind. No good would come of dwelling on the past; that was one of the rules she had lived by these past five years.

    How easy it was to remember her way about the estate! Ahead, a rough, muddy track branched off from the drive and continued down in the direction of the lake. Just before the turn-off, she came across a leather-clad man beside a cart piled high with earth and stones.

    The man, who had been shovelling this earth into one of the gaping potholes in the drive, paused to touch his forehead as she passed and mutter something unintelligible.

    So her first order on her arrival – for the dreadful potholes on the drive to be filled in – was already in hand.

    Bidding the workman a cheery ‘Good day’, Eleanor turned down the narrow track towards the lake, striding out confidently.

    Once out of his sight, she was forced to slow her pace considerably. The track was not only over-grown with brambles and branches from over-hanging trees, but had become a quagmire. The mud came up to her ankles in places, and although her boots protected her from the worst of it, the hem of her poor gown was soon a sight to behold.

    With hindsight, the man above might even have been muttering ‘Mind the mud, Miss,’ as she passed him so blithely.

    It was too late to turn back now. To avoid looking a complete fright, her boots and homely pink gown caked in mud, she would now have to take a more discreet route back to the house, the secret path that ran behind a sprawling bank of ancient beech trees.

    But she refused to return to the house until she had revisited the lake.

    Eleanor reached the lakeside eventually, picking her way through the worst of the mud to stand at the reed-thick water’s edge. It was a lovely sight and one that would always tug at her heart.

    The smooth, darkish surface of the lake stretched far away into bushes on the distant banks, invitingly secretive. She and Charlotte had often walked together here, whispering confidences into each other’s ears, or asked the taciturn Nathaniel to row them out onto the lake during the sultry summer afternoons. Today, the place looked a little sparser than she remembered: a few wild birds were bobbing about in the middle where a smallish, tree-filled scrub of land rose from the lake, cut off on all sides by water.

    Tearing her gaze away from the allures of the lake and its dark little island, determined not to revisit the past with mawkish sentimentality, Eleanor studied the muddy track on which she was standing.

    There were her neat footprints, fresh-made in the mud. But whose were these others?

    They were deeper-set and wider apart than her own, perhaps made by the broad heel of a man’s boot as he stopped here to stare out across the lake, much as she had just done.

    Eleanor frowned, and followed the footprints steadily with her gaze. They appeared to lead along the water’s edge, then up the steep path towards the woodlands and boundary stile that lay between her own land and that belonging to Sallinger House.

    Turning her head, she could observe that the bootprints extended no further than the spot in which she was standing, and that a dog, or maybe even two, had accompanied their maker.

    The implication was obvious. Some person – a man, she had no doubt of it – had come recently to stand on this very spot, with a dog at his side, and then returned the way he had come – from the Sallinger estate.

    A poacher?

BOOK: The Uncatchable Miss Faversham
2.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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