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February 1802. The Treaty of Amiens was about to be concluded bringing respite from the long years of war with France for the people of Britain. Soon rejoicing would surge over the land like a tidal wave.
But in the town of Horley, in the shire of Surrey, at the home of Sir Howard Bartone, neither war nor peace intruded. In this one small part of the island nation a hopeless battle had been waged and was now drawing to its end.
Shrouding curtains concealed bright sun from the sombre chamber. The ancient four-poster bore its unstaring inhabitant in the puffed splendour of satin pillows and rich woollen blankets.
The wan figure of the old man looked as if it was about to be swallowed by the bolsters heaped about him. To one side a young woman sat in a pose of quiet waiting. At the foot of the bed stood a middle-aged man of grave countenance.
Hearing a sound, Mathilda raised her eyes to stare at the man in the bed, then sighed when she saw he remained the same. She felt no grief as she awaited his dying. She longed for death to release him.
Suddenly his eyes, like shutters thrown open to the light of day, flared apart to reveal a stark gaze. The lips trembled as he tried to speak.
Mathilda rose and leaned toward him.
"Tillie," the feeble voice managed, "Tillie, think not too harshly of me. 'Tis you I was thinking of. But ... now.... "Strength failed, and the barely audible whisper trailed into stillness.
"Do not disturb yourself, Bartone," she reassured him. In his eyes she read a different stress, one not caused by pain, and knew not what to do. "Is there someone you wish me to summon?" she asked. Uncertaintywrinkled her smooth, round face.
"I fear ... I fear have ... been unwise ... but it was done for the best," the old man laboured.
"Of course, Bartone of course," she crooned as to a child. Kneeling beside the bed, she took his cold hand into her warm ones.
A hand's firm grip closed on her shoulder. "It is near," Dr. Bolen said quietly.
The old man's eyes widened momentarily; his fingers worked to clutch Mathilda's. A plea--was it for forgiveness--contorted his features until a soft sigh escaped. His face relaxed into the empty expression of death.
Mathilda continued to gaze at him as the doctor reached past her and closed the unseeing eyes. "He rests at last," she said tiredly.
"And now you must," Dr. Bolen urged, taking the withered hand from hers and laying it across the old man's sunken chest. He placed a hand beneath her arm and helped her rise. "You really must rest. There will be the funeral to be got through."
"Yes," she returned vacantly.
"Is there someone I can send for to stay with you during these first days?" the doctor asked, thinking how helpless the young woman looked. Why Bartone had ever decided to marry such a one as she so late in his years he could never guess. But the young woman had been kind and gentle. Her care during this last illness had never ceased, nor had she complained. The doctor started, realizing Lady Bartone was staring at him.
"What was it you asked?" she repeated.
"Asked? Oh, is there someone who can come and stay with you for a few weeks?"
"Come?" Mathilda shrugged. "Why, no one. I am quite alone in the world. Mother passed away the same year Sir Bartone and I were wed. There was no one else.
"Mr. Petersbye, the solicitor, said he would see to all the proper notifications when the time came."
"Then I shall stop by his home and apprise him of the turn here."
"I suppose that will do.... Yes, thank you. But," she hesitated, turning to look back at the huge bed.
"Dannon will know what to do," the doctor assured her. Opening the door of the bedchamber, he glanced over the small group waiting there. "Your master has passed to his reward," he announced.
The tall, slightly bent figure of the aged butler, Dannon, sagged as if a great weight had been placed upon his shoulders. A sob, smothered by the great white apron held to her mouth, escaped from the housekeeper, Dannon's wife, affectionately called Mrs. Bertie.
Sal, the simple-minded scullery maid, and Old Jerry, the last of the once numerous grooms, made up the remainder of the group.
"I am sorry, Dannon," Mathilda said. She knew the affection the old retainer had for his master. "He died peacefully--his pain relieved at last," she assured them all.
"See that your mistress rests," Dr. Bolen ordered Mrs. Bertie. "Dannon, see to Sir Bartone's last needs."
"Don't worry now, Doctor, I'll see to her," Mrs. Bertie said. She wrapped a motherly arm about her young mistress.
"All will be as he would wish, madam," Dannon assured her.
"Oh, milady," wailed Sal, "what'll become of us?" She moaned and raised her hands in an exaggerated pose of fear.
"Stop your silly chatter and fetch some warm water for the mistress," Mrs. Bertie sharply reproved the girl.
"You may call upon me for whatever the need," Dr. Bolen said to Mathilda with a slight bow. "My condolences, of course," he added in farewell.
The echo of the doctor's departing steps fell silent as Mrs. Bertie turned in the direction of Mathilda's room. "Best be to your room, miss," she said, and nodded to Dannon to enter the master's chamber.
The old butler's movement drew Mathilda's frozen attention away from Sal.
"I said fetch water," Mrs. Bertie scolded, "and it had better be warm or your backside will be," she called after the girl.
Propelled forward by the housekeeper, Mathilda slipped into reverie. It had been just six weeks since Bartone had fallen ill. Six weeks that she had spent almost entirely in the sickroom. That had been, after all, her bargain--a home in exchange for companionship and care; a home and care for her sick mother.
She had no regrets about striking the agreement. Long before Bartone had approached her with his offer, she had accepted the fact that there was neither home nor husband for her.
"Why don't you lie down, miss?" Mrs. Bertie interrupted her thoughts. "I'll see to something for you to eat. No need for you to waste away nor make yourself ill. Heaven knows you'll need your strength now."
Something in the housekeeper's tone caught Mathilda's attention. A questioning look brought no answer, only a pat on the hand before the woman swung her heavy form out of the room.
As the door closed, the small portrait of Mathilda's mother hanging near it brought fresh memories of her wedding day, little more than three years ago. The small bust portrait had been Bartone's gift to her their first Michaelmas together.
The word came back in heckling ripples. Mathilda lifted her chin proudly. She was not ashamed of their pact. It had served them both well--he, a lonely old man needing care, companionship; she, a spinster with an ailing mother, without funds or prospects. Some would term their marriage a mockery, the relationship of a grandfather to a granddaughter, but its form had been needed to grant respectability to their common residence.
Yes, she thought, there were many who thought Sir Bartone daft to marry the daughter of a clergyman who had pursued the way of the Lord so thoroughly he had left his family destitute of worldly means.
Even Dannon and Mrs. Bertie had treated her as a scheming tart during her first six months at Bartone Hollows. Mrs. Bertie still called her "Miss," although Mathilda knew that was from habit now.
Mathilda's position in Horley before her marriage had been that of a charity case. Living off the parish and suffering ill treatment by the well-to-do had toughened her, prepared her for the snubs and snide remarks the "proper" women dealt her after her marriage. She knew they would make the funeral a terribly bleak and lonely affair. Even Bartone's two sisters, the only survivors of seven children, had made no response to her letters advising them of his illness.
A tired sigh escaped as she undid her bodice and began to undress. The chill of the room kept her near the fireplace where a small fire struggled to keep its life. In only a chemise and petticoats, Mathilda closely wrapped a woollen shawl about her.
Squatting, she laid a log upon the bed of dim coals from which a weak flame flickered here and there. With a crackling ferociousness, flames spurted anew, enveloping the dry wood and pushing forth warmth. She watched the flames with dry eyes, their hazel colouring darkening. Her gnawing sorrow was not from loss of love but from regret that all must grow old and pass away.
Bartone's life had been long and he had thought it full. She was happy to have lightened his last years. Now her part of the bargain was at end; she had met all terms, and he had promised she would have no care for the future.
With that thought, Mathilda rose. "Then, why," she began aloud, then paused. Why? The word echoed ominously. Why Bartone's strange look as if to beg forgiveness? Why Sal's words--poor simple Sal--who could not know of their arrangement. Why Mrs. Bertie's strange aside? Why did they all frighten her so?
"My lord! My lord, welcome home," Green greeted Viscount William Michael Maine Bartone as he signalled the footmen to remove his lordship's luggage from the post-chaise. "We did not expect you this soon," he continued as he followed the viscount's brisk steps into the family's London residence just off Piccadilly.
"We had a fair wind," came the strong-voiced reply, as the young man glanced into the receiving salon before walking on.
The elderly butler managed to reach the viscount's side and reached for the taped coat when the young man hurried toward his late father's office.
Green shook his head as he followed. Time for me to retire, he thought, if I cannot manage to get milord's coat and gloves in the hall. He picked up these items from a chair to one side of the office doors where the viscount had carelessly tossed them.
"What is this?" the viscount asked, annoyance strong in his voice as he studied a battered trunk resting upon the rug beside his desk.
"We do not know, my lord. It arrived a fortnight ago. There was the question of what to do with it. As you were expected soon, it was thought best to leave it here till your arrival."
"Why didn't Lynn see to it? Has he been shirking matters since, my father's death?"
"No, my lord. Of course not. He may have wished for your return earlier--it having been nigh to ten and eight months since his lordship's death," Green dared. "He would never shirk a duty," he ended, as if his own reputation had been assaulted.
"Easy, man, I simply wish to know why this decrepit item has been left to languish here instead of being placed in the garbage where it belongs," the viscount said with the disarming smile that had eased many an affront.
"There is a letter. It came the same time as the trunk. Yes, I do believe they were delivered at the same time. It is laying on your desk, my lord, and should explain the matter. The trunk was brought from Horley, in Surrey, and the instructions sent with it by a Sir Howard Bartone stated that no one should give further orders as to its disposition until you, and only you, had read the letter."
"Sir Howard Bartone?"
"I believe he was of the lineage of a brother to your great-great-grandfather, the first viscount. You may recall a Lady Pennypiece who called upon your father from time to time. I believe she was Sir Bartone's sister."
"I do not, Green, but then I have been gone for many years." He cocked his head. "Is there reason you think I should recall her?"
"She was the lady," Green's eyes rolled slightly, "who, my lord, had the habit of using a bird's nest to adorn her coiffure. Your father was rather fond of recalling how it fell into the then Admiral Jervis's soup one night at dinner."
A broad smile lightened the viscount's face. "I recall the tale. How St. Vincent looked to his soup and ate as if the nasty thing wasn't there. Then Lady Pennypiece chanced to see it, touched her massive powdered dome, and reached across the table to pluck it from his bowl and place it back upon her head," Bartone said, as he went through the motions of the scene. He chuckled as he remembered how his father had acted the scene out for the family. "But that was many years ago and she was already an old woman."
"I believe she survives to this day, my lord. In fact she has a son near your age." He cleared his throat.
"Sir Bartone passed away a week past. The notice was in the Gazette."
"If he is no longer, the trunk cannot he important. Have it taken to the attics. I will see to the letter later. This is my first day back in London and I do not intend to become closeted with Lynn. There is just one meeting I must be off to as soon as I refresh myself, but I have plans for this eve. We shall dine here, I believe. Send my card to Lord Potters and have him come round.
"What time would you suggest, Green? I know little of the ways here."
"Eight, my lord, or even nine would do."
"By Napoleon's bootstraps," ejaculated the viscount. "I can see I have much to grow accustomed to."
"Do you wish me to help you dress, my lord?" Green asked, as his lordship made for the doors.
"No, I am much accustomed to doing for myself. See to that trunk--now."