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When my father died, he left me debts, nothing more. Debts, and the knowledge that Ashworth, my childhood home--my only home--would have to be sold to pay for his gambling habit. My mother had died when I was but young, and I am told that my father's predilection for dice became overwhelming at much the same time. But he had not educated me for employment, and, with his death, I faced the prospect of no house, no money and no skills that would ready me for work.
I had mourned his passing in a dutiful way. He had never shown me a great deal of attention or affection, but after all, he was my father, and his death, coming as it did with stunning suddenness after a fall from his hunter, was a shock. The greatest shock, however, was still to come. It had never occurred to me that I would not be able to stay at Ashworth, as I always had done. I knew the house was not entailed, and as the only child, I anticipated inheriting it. My father's will made this expectation a certainty, but the look in the eye of the lawyer made me falter over my words of pleasure.
"What is it?" I asked.
Mr. Faulks was a heavyset man in his early fifties. He looked lugubrious even at the best of times; now, he looked more despondent than I had ever known him.
"I must tell you, Miss Brownlow, that your father owed a great deal of money at the moment of his death. These obligations must of necessity be passed to you." He paused, and in a voice that came as near to criticism as he would ever allow himself, added, "Debts of honor--gambling debts--predominantly."
"I see," I said quietly.
But in truth I did not. It took Mr. Faulks some time to give me the explicit details of myfather's finances, and it took some time longer before the realization sank in. I was penniless. It would take an exceptional offer on Ashworth for me to be able even to pay my father's dues, and there would certainly be nothing left to support me. In vain, I studied the "situations vacant" in the newspaper. It seemed that I was qualified for nothing except marriage; the likelihood of my receiving an offer of marriage in my new circumstances was extremely low. These were the worst two weeks I had ever had, and I realized for the first time how isolated my life was. I could think of no one with whom I could talk things through. No one at all.
Then came an offer that would change my life forever.
Perhaps I should have realized immediately that the proposal was too good to be true, but I was young and still believed in miracles. I think, even so, that had I been told by anyone but Mr. Faulks, I might have thought it a cruel joke. But one could never imagine Mr. Faulks saying anything that was not utterly serious, and so when he spoke, I listened.
"The widowed Lady Dennyson--your cousin, she tells me--has made an offer ... a very generous offer ... on the house and contents." He named a price, larger than I could possibly imagine. I ventured to imagine that there might, perhaps, be a small sum left over after my father's debts had been cleared, although it would still not be enough to live on. But Mr. Faulks had not finished. He continued, "She also asks that, as part of the agreement, you stay on to be a companion to her."
I thought back to my last meeting with Lady Dennyson, an aged and opinionated dowager some years older than my parents. It was a year or so since I had seen her, and our conversation had not ended happily. She had criticized my father for his lifestyle, and a fearsome argument had ensued. At the time, I had thoroughly supported my father; knowing what I did now, I couldn't help but think she might have had right on her side. Still, being a companion to an elderly lady would be no sinecure, I knew, but it was the best offer I was likely to receive. And, indeed, I was inexpressibly grateful that she was willing to do anything for me at all. If I accepted this suggestion I could, at any rate, remain in my own home (even if I could call it my own no longer).
"I agree," I said.
"Very well." Mr. Faulks pursed his lips as if something about the arrangement dissatisfied him, but I did not care enough to ask. "I will pursue this avenue."
When he left, I discovered that I felt almost sick with relief. It was as if I had been frozen inside, and the ice had turned to fire and brimstone in my chest. I was safe. I had somewhere to live. My life, perhaps, was not quite over yet.