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Lightning was flickering over the hills ahead, and every now and then came a distant roll of thunderanother storm was on its way. The field workers had given up for the day and were hurrying home before the storm broke, the children clinging to their mothers' skirts, fathers carrying the littlest ones on their shoulders. But they smiled at the shabbily dressed young woman who passed them on the outskirts of the village, and greeted her with respect.
Miss Fanny was on her own way home to the Manor, where she lived with her aunt, Miss Cassandra Shelwood. Though she was wearing an old dress and a tattered sunbon-net, though all the world knew that her mother had run off with a well-known rake and had never been seen again, all the same, Miss Fanny was the late Sir John Shelwood's granddaughter. She and her aunt were the last of a long line of Shel-woods who had owned most of the land round about for as long as anyone could remember.
Miss Shelwood had a heart of stoneeveryone was afraid of herbut Miss Fanny was usually very friendly. Today she seemed preoccupied. Perhaps what they were saying about her aunt's health was true after all. There were long faces at the possibility, for what would happen to the estate if whenMiss Shelwood died? It was well known that Miss Shelwood wouldn't give her niece the time of day if she could help it. So what was going to happen to the Shelwood estate?
Francesca Shelwood had been so deep in thought that she had barely noticed the lightning and was only faintly aware of the thunder rumbling ominously round the valley. The villagers were upon her before she had noticed them. But she smiled at them as they bobbed and nodded their heads, and turned to watch them as they hurried on, anxious to reach shelter before the rain came. They would have been astonished to learn how much she envied them.
Few would claim they were fortunate. Their days were hard and long, they were under constant threat of disastersudden accident or illness, the failure of the harvest, the whims of a landowner, or the caprices of the weather. But they laughed and joked as they went back to their modest dwellings, and the ties of affection, of love and family, were obvious.
She would never know such ties. Nearly twenty-five years old, plain, without any prospect of fortune, and with a shadow over her birthwho would ever think of marrying her?
Now the problem of her future was becoming more urgent with every day that passed. That her aunt was seriously ill could no longer be in doubt, though this was never admitted openly at Shelwood. Miss Shelwood refused to discuss the state of her health with anyone, least of all with her niece. But her attacks had been getting worse and more frequent for months, and yesterday's had been the worst yet, though no one dared dispute Miss Shelwood's assertion that it was simply a result of the excessive heat.
Francesca sighed. Years ago, when she had first come to Shelwood as a bewildered child, snatched away from everything she loved, she had looked to her aunt Cassandra, her mother's sister, for consolation. What a mistake that had been!
How often she had been snubbed, chastised, ignored, before she finally realised the harsh truth. Her aunt disliked her, and wanted as little as possible to do with her. Why this was so she had never been able to fathom. As a child she had asked her grandfather, but he had merely said that she was too young to understand. She had even screwed up her courage one day and had asked her aunt directly.
But Miss Shelwood had given Francesca one of her cold stares and replied, 'A stupid question, Fanny! How could anyone like such a plain, naughty, impertinent child?'
One of the older servants, who was now dead, had once said cryptically, 'It's because you're your mother's daughter, Miss Fanny. Miss Cassandra never wanted you here. It was the master who insisted. You can understand it, though.' And she had then maddeningly refused to say anything more.
It had not been so bad while Grandfather was alive. He had loved her in his fashion, had tried to make up for the lack of affection in his elder daughter. But he had been an old man, and since his death Aunt Cassandra's animosity had seemed to increaseor at least become more obvious. Francesca knew that only her aunt's strong sense of duty persuaded her to give her niece a home, for she had been told so soon after her grandfather's funeral. She had been eleven years old at the time, and had been very surprised to receive a summons to her aunt's room. The scene was still bitterly vivid, even after all these years
'I have something to say to you.'
Francesca was frightened of her aunt. She looked like a great crow, perched behind the desk, hair scraped back under a black lace cap, hooded dark eyes, black dress, black shawl And, though her aunt was motionless, the child could sense a seething anger behind the still façade. There was a chair in front of the desk, but Francesca knew better than to sit down without an invitation, so she remained standing.
'Mr Barton has been acquainting me with the terms of your grandfather's will.'
Francesca shifted uneasily and wondered what was coming. Mr Barton was the Shelwood family lawyer, and Aunt Cassandra had been closeted with him all day after the funeral, and most of the day after. What was her aunt going to do about her? Was she going to send her awayto school, perhaps? She rather hoped soit could hardly be worse than staying alone at Shelwood with her aunt. Her hopes were soon dashed, however.
'Your grandfather has left you a sum of money, the interest on which will provide you with a small allowanceenough to pay for clothes and so on. It is not intended for school fees, since he wished you to remain at Shelwood for the time being. I have been asked to give you a roof over your head during my lifetime, and will obey my father's wish. You have, after all, nowhere else to go.' Her tone made it clear how much she regretted the fact.
'Perhaps I could go back to St Marthe?'
'That is out of the question. There is no place for you there. You will remain here.'
The young Francesca had looked with despair on the prospect of the future stretching out in front of her, alone at Shelwood with Aunt Cassandra. She offered another solution. 'I might marry someone, Auntas soon as I am old enough.'
'You might, though that is rather unlikely '
Francesca's lips twisted in a bitter little smile at the memory of what had followed. Her aunt had gone on to make it clear just why marriage for Francesca was practically out of the question.
'Very unlikely, I should say, in view of your history.' 'My history?' Francesca cast her mind over her various small misdemeanors and found nothing in them to discourage a suitor. 'What have I done, Aunt Cassandra?'
'It is not what you have done.' She paused, and there was a significant silence. Francesca felt something was required of her, but what?
'Is there something I should have done and haven't?' she asked. She knew that this, too, was frequently a source of dissatisfaction.
Miss Shelwood's expression did not change, but Francesca shivered as she waited for her aunt to speak. Finally, she said, 'It has nothing to do with your activities. The damage was done before you were even born. Did your grandfather not tell you about it in all those cosy little chats you had with him? When he talked to you about your mother?'
'I I don't think so. He was often sad when he talked about her. He said he was sorry he never saw her again before she died.'
'He was always very fond of her.'
'He said she was beautiful'
'She was quite pretty, it is true.'
'Everyone who met her loved her'
'She knew how to please, certainly.'
'He used to tell me stories about when she was a little girl. She used to laugh a lot, he said. And she did.' Francesca was so nervous that the words came tumbling out. Normally she would have been silent in her aunt's presence. 'I remember her laughing, too. She used to laugh a lot when we all lived together on St Marthe. She and Maddy used to laugh all the time.'
'My my nurse. The one who brought me here. The one you sent away.'
'The native woman.'
'Maddy was a Creole, Aunt Cassandra. She and Mama were friends. I loved them both. Very much.'
'A most unsuitable woman to have charge of you. Your grandfather was right to get rid of her. So your mama laughed on St Marthe, did she? I am surprised. But then she always found something to amuse her. I daresay it amused her to run off with your father. Whether she was quite so amused when you were born, I do not know. You see, Fanny ' Miss Shelwood paused here as if she was wondering whether to go on. Then her lips tightened and she said slowly, 'Tell me your name.'
Francesca wondered why her aunt should make such a strange request, but she took a deep breath and answered quietly, 'Francesca Shelwood.'
This time the pause was even longer. 'Fanny Shelwood,' said Miss Shelwood in a voice which boded no good for Francesca. 'Fanny. Not Francesca. Francesca is a ridiculously pretentious name. An absurd name for such a plain child.'
Francesca remained silent. This was an old battle, but, though everyone else now called her Fanny, she would remain Francesca in her own mind. Her motherthe mother she only dimly rememberedhad called her Francesca, and she would never give it up. Her aunt waited, then went on, 'Where did the name, Fanny Shelwood, come from?'
'You said I had to be called Fanny, Aunt Cassandra.'
Are you being deliberately obstructive, Fanny, or simply very stupid? I refer to your surname.'
'Grandfather said I was to be a Shelwood. After I came here.'
'Quite so. Have you never wondered why?' The little girl had been pleased that her grandfather wanted to give her his name. It made her feel more wanted, more as if she belonged. She had accepted it, as she had accepted everything else. She had never questioned his reasons. She shook her head.
'It was because, Fanny, as far as we could tell, you had no other name to call yourself.'
'I I don't know what you mean, Aunt Cassandra. I was called Francesca Beaudon at home on St Marthe.'
'Francesca Beaudon.' Her aunt's lip curled as she pronounced the name. 'What right had you to such a name, pray?'
Francesca was completely puzzled. What did her aunt mean? She shook her head. 'I I don't know. Because Papa's name was Beaudon?'
Miss Shelwood leaned forward. 'You had no right whatsoever to the name of Beaudon, Fanny Shelwood! None at all! Your father's name is not for such as you. Richard Beaudon never married your mother!'
'Of course Papa and Mama were married!' cried Francesca in instant and scornful repudiation. What did this woman know about life on St Marthe? 'Of course they were married,' she repeated more loudly. 'Everyone called Mama Lady Beaudon.'
'Do not raise your voice to me, Fanny. I will not have it!'
There was a silence while Francesca wrestled with her sense of anger and outrage. Finally she muttered, 'They were married. It's not true what you say!'
'Are you daring to doubt my word?' A slight pause, then, 'You must accept it, I'm afraid. And, unless you learn to control your feelings better, I shall wash my hands of you, and then where would you be? You might well go the way your unfortunate mother wentwith disastrous consequences to herself and you.'
'It isn't true,' said Francesca doggedly. She sounded brave, but deep down she felt a growing sense of panic. She was not sure of the exact significance of what her aunt was saying, but there was nothing good about it. There was a girl in the village who had a baby though she wasn't married. Everyone was very unkind to her and called her names. They called the baby names, too. It was impossible that her darling mama had been like Tilly Sefton! 'It's not! It's not!' she said, her voice rising again.
Miss Shelwood said sharply, 'Do stop contradicting me in that ridiculous way! What does a little girl like you know about such things? People called your mother "Lady''' Aunt Cassandra's voice dripped contempt '"Lady Beaudon'', because they did not wish to offend. It was merely a courtesy title!'
When Francesca remained silent she went on, 'Deceive yourself if you wishbut tell me this if you can, Fanny. What happened after your mother died? Did your father keep you by him, as any real father would? He did not. He packed you off to England as soon as he could and we, your mother's family, were more or less forced to give you a home and a name! And what have you heard from your father since you left the West Indies? Nothing! No visits, no letters, no money, no giftsnot even on your birthday. Why is that, Fanny?'
Once again Francesca was silent. She had nothing to say in defence of herself and her father. She had been hurt that she never heard anything from him, had tried to find out why, but her grandfather had always refused to mention the Beaudon name.
Satisfied that she had made her point, Miss Shelwood went on, 'So you see, Fanny, a marriage is most unlikely for you, do you not agree? What have you to offer a respectable man? A girl without fortune, without name andyou have to admit that you are hardly a beauty. But you may stay here with me as long as I am alive.'
Even fourteen years later, Francesca still resented the cruel manner in which her aunt had told her of her situation. It had been like crushing a butterfly. For months afterwards she had cried herself to sleep or lain awake, thinking of her life with Maddy and her mother in the West Indies, trying to remember anything at all which might contradict what her aunt had said. But she had found nothing.
Her father had always been a dim figure in the background, especially after Mama had fallen ill and most of her time had been spent in the pretty, airy bedroom with fluttering white curtains and draperies. It was Maddy who had been the child's companion then, Maddy who had sworn never to leave her young charge.