Fortune's Folly, Yorkshire, September 1809
Dowager. It was such a lonely word.
Most people thought of dowagers as faintly comic figures, diamonds displayed on their shelflike bosom, possessing a long, patrician nose to look down.
Laura Cole thought of dowagers as the loneliest people in the world.
It was Laura's loneliness that had prompted her to go down to the river that day, dressed in a pale blue muslin gown with a warm navy-blue spencer over the top, a wide-brimmed straw bonnet on her head and a novel in her hand. She had read somewhere that the beauties of nature were supposed to soothe a troubled spirit and so she had decided to take the rowing boat out and float in bucolic peace under the willow branches that fringed the water's edge.
However, the nature cure was proving to be a disappointing failure. For a start the boat was full of fallen yellow leaves, and once Laura had brushed them off the seat her gloves were already dirty. She sat down and opened her book, but found herself unable to concentrate on the trials and tribulations of her heroine because her mind was full of her own difficulties instead. Every so often, golden-brown leaves would float down and adorn the page. The wind was surprisingly chilly. Laura frowned at her lack of attentiveness and tried all the harder to enjoy herself.
Laura loved the countryside. She had grown up in this wild Yorkshire landscape and had lived in the county for much of her life, though she had spent the previous two years in London. She had hoped that returning to her childhood home would lessen the feeling of emptiness that dogged her steps these days, but it had not, and she could not understand it. It was not as though she was alone in the world. She adored her three-year-old daughter, Harriet, and spent an unfashionable amount of time with her. Fortune's Folly was a busy little village and she had made many new friends there. And she also had a huge extended family with a tribe of cousins in every rank of the Ton. It was not even the case that she missed her late husband, Charles, for they had lived apart for the majority of their marriage. She had been shocked when Charles had died, of course. All of Society had been shocked that a man could be so profligate that he overturned his curricle and killed three of his mistresses as well as himself. But Laura had not missed the errant duke. She had felt enormous relief when she had heard that he had died.
She had felt a thrill of anticipation that she and Hattie were free and then she had felt guilty again and lonelier than she had ever done in her life.
It was to forge a future for herself and Hattie that Laura had come to Fortune's Folly. She wanted her daughter to grow up in the country, so after a year of formal mourning she had left London, where people insisted on trying to commiserate with her about Charles's death, and had come to this Yorkshire village near to Skipton, where her grandmother had left her a modest house, The Old Palace. It sounded grand but Laura privately thought that it should have been renamed Old Place rather than Palace because it was an ancient and inconvenient medieval building no doubt suited to a not-so-ancient but impoverished dowager duchess who was trying to make a new start in life. Her brother and sister-in-law had pressed her to live with them but Laura had a vision of what that would be likethe dowager aunt taken in through charity, deferring to her brother's will at every turnand she knew that even solitary poverty had to be better than genteel dependence. Hattie's situation would be even more intolerable than her own as she grew up as a poor relation. It was not to be borne. Skimping and scraping, growing her own fruit and vegetables, keeping bees, making and mending, just herself and Hattie and a few servants had to be preferable to being her brother's pensioner.
Her daughter was a constant joy and revelation to her. And though she sometimes wished that Hattie had brothers or sisters with whom to share her childhood, Laura thought this wildly unlikely now. In order to have more children she would need to take a new husband and it would take an exceptional man to persuade her into marriage again after her experience with Charles. She and Hattie would fend quite well for themselves and soon, she was sure, her feelings of isolation would start to fade. She did not want her melancholy to affect Hattie. Hattie was such a happy child.
She cast the book aside and untied the mooring rope. Since she could not seem to concentrate on reading, she would take the boat for a short row on the river. Physical activity would help to occupy her and she could admire the autumnal countryside at the same time. She pushed the boat off from the bank and sat back to enjoy the gentle flow of the river.
As soon as the boat left the shelter of the bank the current caught it with quite unexpected strength. The water flowed deep and fast here. Nervous now, Laura gritted her teeth and tried to use the oars to steer back to the side, but she was clumsy and the river was too powerful. One of the oars slid from the rowlock and floated away. The boat began to make its rather erratic way down the river quite of its own accord.
Life, Laura thought helplessly, as she watched the oar bob away from her, so seldom turned out as planned. Here she was, a widow of four and thirty with a small daughter, virtually penniless and with an uncertain future. And now her immediate prospects scarcely looked better than her long-term ones. In fact they looked very wet and unpleasant indeed. She needed to start thinking about how she was going to get out of this situation without compromising her life, if not her dignity.
The boat scraped against the stony bed of the river and Laura made a grab for an overhanging branch, missed it and felt the sleeve of her spencer rip. Damnation. She could not afford to buy any new clothes. She would be the only duchess in the country who would be wearing darned clothing. People would commend her for her frugality to her face and talk about her poverty behind her back. Even in the small society of Fortune's Folly there was a great deal of gossip, and not much of it was kind.
Laura plied her one remaining oar with energy but little direction and felt the boat start to turn in a slow circle in the water, which was not what she had intended at all. She rowed a little harder and the boat turned more quickly, picking up momentum, swinging around in a way that made her feel slightly sick. She grabbed for another branch in a last attempt to save herself. The sunlight was in her eyes and the shadows danced against her lids, blinding her, and the bark of the tree scored her fingers. She had just managed to gain a faint purchase when she felt the boat lurch as though someone had pushed it hard. The branch snapped, hitting her on the back of the head as it fell into the water. She heard the snap of breaking twigs and a scuffle as though someone were running away.
The boat rocked and Laura's head spun with nausea. She let go of the second oar and clutched the sides. She could only hope that the boat would steady and the current would take her back in to the bank for she was momentarily too disoriented, and felt too sick, to do anything else.
But the boat did not steady. Instead it lurched out into the center of the river and headed toward the fish weir. The current was flowing faster and faster now. Laura knew she should jump but she had left it too late. The river was too strong for her here. She thought that she heard someone shouting but the sound was lost in the roar of the water and the grating of the stones of the weir beneath the hull of the boat. It rolled violently and then Laura was pitched over the side and the river closed over her head. The noise was in her ears and the water filled her lungs so she could not breathe. She had a last, vivid picture in her mind of her daughter's smiling face and then everything went dark.
Dexter Anstruther was fishing.
Such a mild autumn day in the rocky reaches of the River Tune was perfect for grayling. Dexter liked fishing because it was a peaceful, soothing and solitary occupation, in contrast to the frequently disturbing, violent and unpleasant matters that he had to deal with in his work for the Home Secretary. Only the previous week Dexter had masterminded the capture of a brutal criminal who specialized in theft and extortion. He had hoped that after that success Lord Liverpool, the Home Secretary, would finally be persuaded to allow him some much-needed leave. But Liverpool had another plan.
"Need you to go to Yorkshire and deal with some damned murdering criminal," Lord Liverpool had said, snapping a quill pen irritably between his fingers and casting the parts aside with a muttered curse. "You remember the death of Sir William Crosby, Anstruther?"
"Yes, my lord," Dexter said. Sir William Crosby, a Yorkshire magistrate, had shot himself whilst out hunting a month before. "I thought," he added, "that that had been an accident?"
Lord Liverpool shook his head. "Murder," he said, with gloomy relish. "It was dressed up to look like an accident but Crosby was left-handed and the angle of the bullet made it impossible for him to have tripped and fallen. Blasted nuisance, but the fact is that these blackguards can't be allowed to get away with it."
"Quite, my lord," Dexter said. "But if it is a straightforward case of murder, surely this is a matter for the local constable rather than the Guardians" He stopped as Liverpool shook his head crossly and reached for another quill to decimate.
"Can't allow some bungling local official to deal with this, Anstruther," he had barked. "It's complicated. Warren Sampson may be involved. Crosby was investigating some business that implicated Sampson when he died. Convenient, eh?"
Dexter pursed his lips on a soundless whistle. That did put a different complexion on matters. For several years there had been rumors that Warren Sampson, a disgustingly rich Yorkshire mill owner and businessman, was involved in stirring up civil unrest and sedition in the North of England. Sampson was clever about it and there was nothing that could be pinned on him; he worked through intermediaries and it was thought that he encouraged mill riots so that he could steal business from his rivals and that he had perpetrated various insurance frauds and other swindles. Lord Liverpool was near apoplectic because the authorities had been unable to trap Sampson.
"There is a rumor that one of Sampson's henchmen is a member of the local gentry," Liverpool said disgustedly. "The bored son of some rustic squire looking for excitement and extra cash, perhaps. He may well be the murderer, Anstruther. The whole thing is a damned nuisance, but the case needs careful handling."
Dexter had sighed. "Do we have any idea of the location of this aristocratic delinquent, my lord?"
"Sampson owns land around Peacock Oak and Fortune's Folly," Lord Liverpool said, "and Crosby lived close by. The trouble is that every petty criminal in the country is hanging out there at the moment. Natural enough when that dashed fool Monty Fortune has put about town the fact that he has made the place the marriage mart of England. The town is crowded with visitors and every villain for miles around wants to get their share of the spoils."
Dexter saw the problem. Even the impecunious fortune hunters who flocked to the village might have a watch or a snuffbox worth stealing and the homes of the rich heiresses would yield fine pickings. It was a temptation many criminals would not wish to resist and in amongst the petty thieves might lurk a more dangerous malefactor with Warren Sampson pulling his strings.
"Whilst you are there you could also turn your attention to finding yourself a rich wife, Anstruther," Lord Liverpool had added. "Don't think that I don't know your family finances are in a parlous state. Your mama can no more retrench than she could swim the Thames, your sisters need to be launched into society and your brothers are damned expensive to educate. You need to wed an heiress. Penniless men are vulnerable to blackmail and I cannot have that in a man working so closely with me."
"I would not dream of succumbing to blackmail, no matter how desperate my situation, my lord," Dexter said coldly. He clenched his hands into fists to prevent himself from telling his employer how offended he was at the suggestion.
"No need to get touchy with me, lad," Liverpool grunted, noticing the gesture. "I know you're sound as a bell but others in your family may not be and where there is a weakness
" He shook his head. "Get you to Fortune's Folly. If you cannot catch yourself a rich wife there, then I wash my hands of you. But make sure that you find our miscreant before you succumb to the lures of some young lady. I don't want you distracted, Anstruther. This Fortune's Folly marriage mart business is the perfect cover for your presence in Yorkshire but make sure you keep your mind on your work first and your fortune hunting second."
"Yes, my lord," Dexter said.
"I'll give you two months," Lord Liverpool said. "Want the matter tied up by Christmas, Anstruther. That should give you plenty of time. If you're lucky you might even fit in some fishing, as well. Catch the murdering miscreant fair and square, see that he implicates Sampson, as well, and if you also come back with a wealthy wife you will have done a good job."
"Yes, my lord," Dexter said, heart sinking. There was no reasoning with Lord Liverpool when he was in this sort of mood. And truth to tell, Dexter knew that he should not be arguing the case anyway. Lord Liverpool was righthe desperately needed a rich wife and ever since Monty Fortune had made his announcement in Brooks's Club that night he had been thinking of going to Yorkshire to find one.
The problem, Dexter reflected, as he cast his line again, was that he was a reluctant suitor.