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Pink cheeked and breathless after the gallop, Rowena Caxton slipped down from the back of her sorrel mare with the aid of her groom's steadying hand. She was close enough to the house to hear a clock chime eleven somewhere inside.
"Oh, dear, I am late!" she exclaimed, picking up the train of her grey cloth riding habit. "Thank you, Tom. I doubt I shall ride again today."
"Right, miss." He grinned in response to her smile and led the mare and his own cob away as she hurried through the back door of Chillenden Manor.
Budgen popped out of the butler's pantry to announce that the lawyer from London awaited her in the library. He followed her to the flagstoned hall, a chilly place even in June, furnished with a few dark, heavy Jacobean chairs along the whitewashed walls. She tossed her whip and gloves on the matching table, took off her hat and was making a futile effort to tidy her hair when Miss Pinkerton scurried in, looking flustered, as usual.
"There you are at last, Rowena. Mr. Harwin arrived some minutes ago. The Dover mail was early, for a wonder. My dear, your hair!"
In her muddled way, she patted her own silver-grey locks under their becoming lacy cap as if that would help untangle the cascade of light brown curls tumbling down Rowena's back.
"I did tie it back, Pinkie," Rowena assured her elderly cousin, a twinkle in her green eyes. "A low branch in the orchards snagged the ribbon. Tell me, pray, ought I to keep Mr. Harwin waiting while I change and make myself respectable?"
Her composure restored by this appeal to her knowledge of etiquette, Miss Pinkerton considered the question with care.
"I believeyou had best go in at once," she decided. "Gentlemen are always so impatient, your poor father excepted of course, and I daresay a lawyer will not be concerned with your appearance. Shall I come with you? Or no, I shall wait next door in the parlour with the door open and you must call if you need me."
"I doubt Mr. Harwin has any designs on my virtue. He is a most respectable gentleman and quite middle-aged."
"Really, Rowena, you must not say such ... I only meant that if you have need of my support ... Lawyers do tend to be birds of ill omen, you know, and they will wear those horridly depressing black coats."
"In my experience, lawyers are less likely to bring ill news than sheaves of papers to be signed. Only recollect the stack he produced when Papa died! There, that is the best I can do with my wretched hair. I shall go in, Budgen."
The lawyer rose and bowed as the butler announced Rowena. He was indeed clad all in black, but his round, kindly face with its gold rimmed spectacles did not appear in the least ominous, in spite of his worried air.
"Pray forgive my unpunctuality, Mr. Harwin," she said gaily. She sat down, the train of her habit heaped about her feet. "As you see, I did not even stop to change. I have been in the cherry orchard. We shall harvest next week, but in the meantime it has been invaded by starlings."
"Not a serious problem, I trust, Miss Caxton?"
"No, indeed. I have hired a dozen boys from the village to scare them off. They are enjoying themselves excessively, I assure you, and I daresay they will leave more of the crop than the birds would." Rowena's green eyes lit with amused resignation.
The lawyer sighed. "You have made a great success of farming Chillenden since the sad loss of your mother," he said. "It is a pity that the late Mr. Caxton took so little interest in the estate."
"No, Papa was much too caught up in his translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses to care about apples and greenfly and pruning. I know he would have made an effort to understand such things, though, had he not fallen ill when Mama died. He was far from well for some years, you know."
Mr. Harwin sighed again. "I fear his death has left you in a sorry situation, Miss Caxton."
"Oh, no, you must not think I am dissatisfied. I was very unhappy at first, of course. Papa was the dearest of men, though so very absentminded. But it is nine months since he died, I shall soon be out of mourning, and life goes on. To tell the truth, I am too busy to repine. I am fortunate in having dear Pinkie to run the household, but between managing the orchards, helping the tenants with their problems, and exchanging visits with the neighbours, I assure you my days are filled."
"And is there no young man among your neighbours with whom you might--ahem--seek a closer union, shall we say?"
She smiled at his circumlocution. "Marriage, you mean."
She thought of Geoffrey Farnhouse, whose father's land adjoined her own. Sir Edward Farnhouse had been an invaluable source of advice when she had found herself, at sixteen, with an invalid father and a neglected estate. She had grown up with Geoff and he was a good friend. Since well before her father's death he had been pressing her to marry him, to join the two estates. It would be a respectable match and she was fond of both him and his family, but they did not pretend to love each other.
Besides, unlike his father, he strongly disapproved of her interest in farming and was incredulous of her ability.
The lawyer was looking at her in hopeful enquiry.
"No," she said, her voice firm. "There is no one I wish to marry."
"Dear me, dear me." He took off his spectacles and polished them on a huge, red-spotted handkerchief. "It would be the ideal solution," he said wistfully.
Mr. Harwin suddenly became very busy with the papers on the table beside him. "I fear I have bad news, Miss Caxton," he mumbled, avoiding her eye.
To his astonishment, she laughed. It seemed Pinkie was right. "I beg your pardon, sir," she said soberly, noting that he had taken offence. "I do not mean to make light of the matter, whatever it is."
He found the document he was looking for, glanced at it with distaste and hurriedly buried it again in the pile, shaking his head in distress.
"What is wrong, Mr. Harwin?" Rowena heard the alarm in her own voice and tried to steady it. "Pray tell me. Perhaps the problem is not as bad as you suppose."
"Worse, Miss Caxton, worse. There is a mortgage. A mortgage on..." Again he disinterred the paper, this time peering at the writing as if he hoped it might say something different by now. "...On Chillenden Manor, in the County of Kent, its lands, farms and all appurtenances thereto.' I fear, Miss Caxton, I greatly fear, that the mortgage has recently fallen due and the manor will have to be sold to pay it."
The room swam before Rowena's eyes. She closed them, gripping the arms of her chair in convulsive fingers.
Through a fog of half-disbelieving despair, she was aware of the lawyer patting her hand, ringing the bell, calling for brandy. Budgen and Miss Pinkerton rushed in. The butler hurried to the cabinet where Rowena's father's medicinal brandy still stood, while Pinkie fanned her with a convenient copy of the Agricultural Gazette.
"What did you say to the poor child?" Miss Pinkerton glared at Mr. Harwin indignantly. "I've no opinion of lawyers, and so I tell you to your face."
Mr. Harwin, hovering helpless nearby, turned bright red and spluttered an incoherent protest.
Rowena pushed away the glass of amber liquid Budgen offered her. In his anxiety for her he had forgotten to put it on a tray, and she thought how she would tease him about it later, for he had far more respect for the niceties than she did. Then she realized that there would be no later.
"There must be some mistake," she said.
That was pushing Mr. Harwin too far. "No mistake," he said loudly and firmly. "Permit me to explain, Miss Caxton."
"In a moment." Rowena regained her self-control. "Thank you, Budgen. I am quite recovered. I shall call if I need you," she added as the butler showed signs of intending to stay and protect her.
The faithful servant withdrew reluctantly, with many a backward glance. "I'll be just outside the door, miss, if you need me," he announced.
"I am here, dear, and here I shall stay. I shall not interrupt unless that man upsets you again." Miss Pinkerton perched on the chair next to Rowena's, took her hand in a comforting clasp and scowled at Mr. Harwin.
The lawyer wiped his forehead with his spotted handkerchief, polished his glasses again and sat down.
"Are you sure you are well enough for me to continue, ma'am?"
"Yes, I must understand."
"I regret to say that the document was only discovered a fortnight since. You may recollect the disarray in which the late Mr. Caxton left his papers."
"His business papers." The corners of Rowena's lips turned up in a sad, reminiscent smile. "Papa's literary papers could not have been neater."
Mr. Harwin coughed. "Yes, well," he murmured. "Be that as it may, upon his decease I removed to London an entire deskful, an accumulation of some of the most haphazard records I have ever seen. One of my clerks has been working on them since then. He came upon a number of notes of hand, for considerable sums, all marked paid. It seemed that Mr. Caxton had at various times borrowed heavily, not surprising when you consider his lack of interest in his estate, but that he had succeeded in redeeming the notes. However, by the time he had found five or six, my clerk noticed that they had all been paid on the same date. This naturally suggested a consolidated debt."
"He mortgaged Chillenden to pay off the other loans. Oh, poor Papa!"
Poor papa, she thought again some three weeks later. Unable to face reality, he had pushed the promissory note into the back of the desk and forgotten it, leaving his daughter to deal with the result alone.
Rowena was riding her sorrel mare round Chillenden for the last time. Once set in motion, events had moved fast, and the estate was to be auctioned the day after next. She could not bear to see her home sold. She would be gone by then. Miss Pinkerton had already tearfully departed to live with her brother's autocratic widow.
There had been little choice in the planning of Rowena's future. After the battle of Toulouse in March and Bonaparte's abdication in April, land prices were down, and heading lower at the prospect of a poor harvest. Mr. Harwin doubted that there would be more than a couple of hundred pounds left to her, at most, after the sale.
Geoffrey Farnhouse, his eyes full of pity, had proposed again. Her pride would not let her accept as a pauper what she had refused when she thought she had a prosperous estate for her dowry. Her education in the classics and fruit farming had not fitted her to be a governess, the last resort of many a poverty-stricken lady of quality. And no one was likely to hire a female as a boys' tutor or a land agent.
Two courses were left open to her: to become a paid companion to a stranger, or to throw herself on the mercy of her mother's sister and go to live with her as a poor relation.
At first it seemed that the second of even these meagre alternatives was impossible. Lady Grove had made no attempt to communicate with her brother-in-law or her niece since Mrs. Caxton's death five years since. Her direction could not be found. Then Mr. Harwin's clerk recalled seeing the name Grove scribbled on the back of an old receipt, along with an address. His encyclopedic memory produced the name of the merchant on the receipt, which was duly found filed under the first letter of that name.
A grateful Mr. Harwin promptly raised his salary a shilling a week, and Rowena wrote to her aunt. Lady Grove replied at once.
Trotting through the apple orchard, where the green fruit were beginning to swell on the branches, Rowena thought about the letter with an uneasy feeling.
Aunt Hermione had not hesitated to invite her to make her home at Grove Park. She assured her niece that Sir Henry was equally ready to receive her, and Millicent and Anne would be delighted to welcome a cousin so near to them in age. It would be quite unnecessary for Rowena to bring her mare to augment her uncle's stables, as Millicent did not ride, so there would rarely be any need for a mount.
Rowena leaned down and hugged her beloved Vixen, who snorted in surprise. She would miss riding, for she often spent half the day at Chillenden on horseback. Was that why she dreaded going into Gloucestershire? She was spoiled, used to having her own way, she thought. As a poor relation, however welcome, she must do her best to fit into the pattern of life in a strange household. She had no choice; unlike poor Papa she had to face the facts.
The next morning she dressed in a plain grey round gown and drab bonnet, suitable for travelling, and bade the servants a sad farewell. The groom drove her in the gig to Bishopsbourne to catch the Dover-to-London stage. He wanted to wait with her at the Four Feathers, to see her safely aboard the coach.
"No, Tom," she said with a tremulous smile, "I shall do very well by myself. Go home ... back to Chillenden to help them prepare for the auction."
The little inn opened directly onto the village street. It seemed deserted; in fact the whole village was unusually quiet for a sunny July morning. No one answered Tom's halloo. With a sigh and a shake of the head he unloaded her trunk from the gig and set it near a bench by the inn door. Reluctantly he drove off.
Dry-eyed, Rowena watched her last link with Chillenden disappear round a bend in the road.