Read an Excerpt
The last will and testament of Sophronia Tewksbury was a document so vile and complex her relatives considered seriously having it contested on the grounds of her having been insane when she wrote it. In following years it was often used as a precedent in cases where bizarre requests were made by the deceased, and when a solicitor was confronted with a particularly difficult legal matter, he would dub it a ?Tewksbury Case."
When it was read aloud, her neighbor, Sir Hillary Thoreau, threw back his head, laughed, and said it was ?just like the old devil to take it with her," till he learned he had been saddled with the unenviable task of being co-executor.
It was a raw, cold day in late March when Sophronia's relatives (she had no friend except Thoreau), assembled at Swallowcourt to attend her deathbed. She had been threatening to die for years, but her companion, Miss Bliss, felt that this time she meant it, so sent out a series of notes to those of the family who were likely to come.
The likeliest ones were Sophie's sister, Marcia Milmont, and the husband's nephew, Captain Jonathon Tewksbury, the main heir to Swallowcourt. The place was entailed on him, with lifetime occupancy for the widow. They both set out posthaste from London, but as Jonathon made his trip in a curricle, he beat Mrs. Milmont to Swallowcourt by the better part of an hour. He had time to make one last bid to ingratiate himself with the old girl before she died. This was done by some heavy-handed gallantry on how well she looked, with her eyes sunken into their sockets, and by playing a game of chess for ten minutes, at which point it was clear that even a dying Sophronia was morethan a match for her nephew.
He had barely rejoined Miss Bliss in the Crimson Saloon, a chamber of impressive dimensions rendered bleak by the faded draperies, dusty furniture, and general air of decay, when Marcia arrived. To his considerable surprise, she was accompanied by her daughter Claudia, a young girl often mentioned but never heretofore seen. They came in, a spritely matron with a carefully painted face, a full but good figure encased in an expensive green traveling suit, and a tall girl of uncertain years.
The matron was forty-eight, looked forty-five, and called herself fortyish. It was this duplicity regarding her own age that accounted for the uncertain-appearing age of her daughter. Claudia was twenty-four, but as owning up to this would age her mama so dreadfully, she was treated as a mere child. Except for an unfortunate tendency to tallness, she might have passed for being still in her teens. There was a youthful glow on her cheeks and in her eyes. These were of a clear blue, but with a knack of looking vague, as she was a dreamer.
Since turning fifteen, she had spent her time on her paternal grandfather's estate in Devonshire, so that she could officially remain ?my little girl? in her mother's conversation. It was decidedly awkward to have her present in London, where Mrs. Milmont had still some hopes of remarrying. Claudia's presence now was due to the beginning of her annual two-week vacation with her mother, timed, of course, to be over before the London season began, and usually spent in such tedious quiet that Claudia was happy to return to her country life. The death of Sophronia had proved a boon to Mrs. Milmont. It would remove Claudia from town, and as Sophie had to go sometime, no time appeared better than the present.
Captain Tewksbury was well known to Marcia. They were friends in London, both inhabiting that uncertain area just on the fringe of society. She viewed him with no more than a stab of chagrin that he had beat her to Sophie's side. To Miss Milmont, however, he was a stranger, and therefore a creature of a little more interest. She saw a tall young gentleman in a dashing red tunic, with blonde hair, curled and smooth, an aquiline nose, and a petulant mouth. He reminded her of a spoilt boy dressed up in a soldier's uniform. Her mama knew him to be a captain in the Foot Guards, and though he had never seen battle and was not likely to, as he was attached to the Palace, he made much of being a soldier.
No general's buttons shone more brightly; not the greatest hero's shoulders were held back at a straighter angle. He spoke of such weighty matters as ?the Corsican's Plans? and ?that sly old devil, Boney? as though he were the power behind the Iron Duke. He had, of course, never met the Duke of Wellington. His real interest was in his uniform, and the balls and routs he attended in the city. He had also an interest in heiresses, for though he stood to inherit Swallowcourt, he had but slim chances of getting any money to go with it, and it was falling apart. He couldn't sell it, since it was entailed, but it would add to his dignity to have ?a country place? to speak of, and the rents would add something to his officer's pay, he supposed. His real deliverance from the confines of poverty lay in marriage, and he never for a moment forgot it.
"Miss Bliss, how is my dear sister?" Mrs. Milmont asked in a grief-stricken voice as soon as the necessary introductions were made.
"She's dying. That's why I sent for you," Miss Bliss replied coolly. "So this is the little girl I've heard you mention," she said, looking at Claudia.
"Yes, my little baby," Marcia answered, glancing up at her baby, who smiled apologetically, and seated herself immediately to conceal her height.
The captain gave all single girls a close scrutiny, but he saw nothing to interest him here. A tall, gangly girl, and as she was Mrs. Milmont's daughter, the dowry could not be considerable.
"Mama, should we not go right upstairs, if Aunt Sophie is dying?" Claudia asked.
"I hope we may take two minutes for a cup of tea after jostling all the way from London over bumpy roads. My bones are shaken. Is she really dying, Miss Bliss? Last year when you had me down right in the middle of the Season, it proved to be only a digestive upset."
"That was two years ago. This time we're sure. The doctor says so, and she's stopped eating."
These sounded like good omens, and to conceal her pleasure, Mrs. Milmont pulled out a dainty lace-trimmed handkerchief with a beautiful M embroidered in the corner, and held it to her eyes. "Well, none of us lasts forever. She's frightfully old, poor girl."
"There must have been quite a difference in age between you two," Miss Bliss said. "Sophronia is seventy."
Tea had already been ordered, and while it was served, Marcia explained away her ancient sister. "We're of different generations entirely. Sophie was the eldest child, and I was born years later, the youngest."
"There must be nearly twenty years difference," Miss Bliss remarked with a sly smile. She enjoyed humbugs.
"Much more than that! Mama was only seventeen when Sophie was born, and nearly?going on fifty?well into her forties, when I came along."
"There were the other children, the boys, in between, you know." Disliking this subject, she turned to Jonathon. "I didn't see you at the play the other night, Captain. Shakespeare?so distracting. But then you soldiers are slaves to duty. I daresay you were on maneuvers or making battle plans in case Boney invades us. Claudia, child, pass the captain a biscuit."
"They're stale," he said bluntly, then removed himself from Mrs. Milmont's good graces by saying, "I didn't realize your daughter was a grown girl. I thought she was just a child. Though now I come to think of it, you've been talking about her for close to ten years."
"She is older than ten," she said, shooting fire at him for his question.
"Must be at least twenty," he answered, looking closely.
"You naughty boy!" Marcia laughed. "Why, he's making you out an old maid, Claudia. You ought to give him a good scold."
"Are you making your come-out this year?" he asked Claudia.
"Too bad. Sophie's death will mean you have to put it off."
"Oh, dear!" Mrs. Milmont gasped. "I hadn't thought of that."
"But I was not to be presented, mama," Claudia said.
"Presented? No such thing. I'm not talking about that. I shall have to go into mourning. For six months, too, I suppose?the entire season wasted. I shan't be able to go about till the Fall little season. What a pity, and I have ordered four colored gowns."
"I'm dished, too," the captain commiserated, quite cut up.
"That's certainly a pity," Miss Bliss said in her tart way. She looked at Claudia while the other two consoled each other, and thought she saw dismay in those big blue eyes. Without a doubt the girl was ashamed of her mother, and well she might be if she had a bit of decency. She beckoned to Claudia, who arose and went to her side. She engaged her in conversation and found her a quiet, well-bred young lady. Her having spent the last nine years away from her mama would account for it.
"Did I understand you to say you are not to be presented?" she asked.
"There was never any mention of it, ma?am, even when I was at the age ... That is ..." She came to a confused stop.
"I see," Miss Bliss smiled and tactfully changed the subject. She believed the girl must be over twenty. In her plain gown and untrimmed bonnet it was hard to tell, but she could not be much more than twenty.
"Do you like it in Devonshire?" she asked next.
Claudia praised the countryside, but her activities, when they were drawn out of her, sounded boring enough. Governess to two brats of cousins was the gist of it, with no mention of balls and parties.
Mrs. Milmont finished her tea and asked Miss Bliss if she would just see if she and Claudia could go up now to see dear sister. No sooner was Miss Bliss out of the room than she turned to Jonathon and began an interview that interested her a good deal more than Sophie's health.
"Have you heard anything about the will?" she asked eagerly.
"She's had her man of business here to make some changes. I couldn't find out what they were."
"You're safe enough, Jonathon. She couldn't take away your portion if she wanted to."
"She could give me a little money to go with it, but it will go to young Gabriel, I expect. I wonder he ain't here making up to her."
"He's sly enough for anything," Marcia warned. "But he would be at the university, would he not?"
"Sir Hillary has gone to fetch him home."
?That one would stick a spoke in your wheel if he could, and he rich as Croesus himself."
Claudia was at first confused at these names, but as the two bereaved talked and complained on, it became clear to her that Sir Hillary Thoreau was some near-by neighbor who had Gabriel Tewksbury living with him. It seemed Gabriel was also Sophie's nephew by another of her husband's brothers. That one nephew, Jonathon, should get the estate and the other some money seemed fair to Claudia, but she saw pretty clearly it was considered a grave injustice by the captain.
"Don't despair, Jonathon," Mama consoled the captain. "The lot would have gone to Gabriel?the money, I mean?had he married Luane at Christmas as Sophie wanted him to, but as he hadn't the wits to do it, there may be hope for you yet."
Here at last was a name with which Claudia was familiar. She knew she had a cousin Luane Beresford. Mama's brother was the girl's father, and Claudia had often wished she could meet her only female cousin.
"Can't think why they didn't do it, for they're close as inkle-weavers, the pair of them. Ever since Luane's been living with Sophie, she's been tossing her cap at young Gab."
"She may have him and welcome, what I fear is that she's after my diamonds."
Claudia stared to hear that mama had diamonds and wondered that her cousin Luane should have an eye on them.
"The Beresford Diamonds you mean," Jonathon corrected.
"They were given to Sophie by our aunt; they are family diamonds."
"Well, Luane's a Beresford."
"So am I, or was, and Luane won't be a Beresford when she marries. I see no reason why she should get the diamonds."
"An orphan, and quite like a daughter to the old girl these last years. I take it your brother didn't leave the girl much."
"No, never a feather to fly with?he lost a great deal upon ?Change," she added, lest he take the idea the family was poor, which it was.
"Far as that goes, I daresay your daughter could do with a little something."
"She is well dowered, sir, I take leave to tell you," Marcia fired up. "She has a handsome allowance and is in Mr. Milmont's will."
Claudia stared to hear her pittance of an allowance described as ?handsome," and knew very well that her inclusion in grandpa's will was for a roof over her head.
"That so?" Jonathon asked, his interest quickening. "How much ..."
"Quite a large sum," Mrs. Milmont replied evasively.
"Daresay that's why Sophie is leaving the diamonds to the Beresford chit then."
"I cannot feel she would treat her own sister so shabbily. But there are the other jewels?the long rope of pearls I especially admire, and there are some fine rings ..."
"All the rest of that junk together wouldn't be worth the price of the necklace."
"You don't have to describe my family's diamond necklace to me, Captain. I know it is worth fifty thousand pounds. Why, the large pendant stone hanging off the front is worth ten thousand. And if she wants to be giving it to a niece, I see no reason why Claudia should not get it. She is the elder."
Claudia smiled to herself to hear that she was being allowed to be older than anyone and asked mischievously just how old her cousin Luane was.
"A year or so younger than yourself," she was told by her mama with a silencing frown.
Miss Bliss returned to take the Milmont ladies up to see Sophie, and Jonathon went out for a walk around his estate, an exercise so depressing that he soon returned and had a glass of sherry. Everything was a mess? stonework crumbling, slates off the roof, windows smashed to bits, and the lawn a jungle. It would take a fortune to put the place to rights, and for what? Couldn't sell it. An heiress?there was the answer to his problems, and if Luane Beresford got the diamonds, he'd make a push to attach her. What had Sophie said there, during the chess game? ?Thoreau is bringing Gabriel down from Cambridge in case I should take a pique and leave all my blunt to you. And I'd do it, too, if Luane would marry you, which she won't." Who said she wouldn't though? Be bound to fall for the uniform. He paraded in front of the dim mirror to admire his buttons and lace. He let his eyes wander up to the face, and he saw nothing amiss there either. Bit of a handsome dog actually.
He was disturbed at this narcissistic chore by the sound of flying feet in the hallway. Dashing out to see what had happened, he saw Miss Milmont, breathing hard and stuttering. "She?she's dead!?
"By Jove!" the captain exclaimed in a strange voice of which sorrow made up no part.
"They said to tell you."
"What am I supposed to do about it? If she's gone, she's gone. You've told me."
"Don't you want to go up?"
"What for? It's the doctor you want, I fancy. Have to sign some certificate very likely. Yes, I'll send for Hill."
Mrs. Milmont was only a minute behind her daughter, the monogrammed handkerchief firmly lodged against her dry eyes. "My vinaigrette, Claudia," she breathed in a dying voice.
The two ladies went into the Crimson Saloon, and were soon joined by Jonathon. "Well, I've sent a boy off for Doctor Hill," he told them and rubbed his hands, unable to control a smile.
Miss Bliss came in, her usually alert face wearing a stunned look.
"Where is Miss Beresford?" Claudia asked. "Should we not tell her?"
"She went down to Chanely?Thoreau's place, to wait for Gabriel's arrival. She should be back soon."
Jonathon was a little worried to hear of his heiress still dangling after Gabriel. He had thought they had a falling out at Christmas, but it could not have been severe.
"What should I do?" Miss Bliss asked the relatives. "We should be letting people know. Jonathon, maybe you'd come with me, and I'll give you some note paper."
Jonathon's chest swelled to be at last master in some house and in a fit of nobility he said, "I don't want you to worry about a thing, Miss Bliss. You can stay right on here and look after things for me. Of course, I wouldn't be able to pay you much ..." he added, as sanity returned to him.
"No, you couldn't pay me to stay here," she said bluntly and gave him a list of persons to notify.
"I could pay you a little something."
"I'm going to a chicken farm with my sister," Miss Bliss said to be rid of him, and she returned to the Saloon. She then took the Milmonts to their rooms.
When Marcia had attired herself in a black gown and her daughter in an unbecoming dove gray, the closest thing to mourning the girl possessed, they went downstairs to await whatever Fate and Miss Bliss had in store for them.