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"It's no good," Jessica cried, throwing down her quill in despair. "Even without the outbreak of scabies last autumn and the snowstorm in lambing time, we simply could not make the payment."
She had never expected to dread her brother's homecoming. After two years and more fighting in America, Lieutenant Sir Nathan Franklin deserved a joyful welcome, not the shocking news she had to give him. She rose from the small writing desk where she had been studying the figures for the hundredth time and moved restlessly to the window. "When do you think Nathan will arrive, Tibby?"
Miss Tibbett lowered her book and peered over the top of her spectacles at her flaxen-haired former pupil. "It depends on the state of the road from Darlington," she said patiently, not for the first time.
"Some of the fords are bound to be washed out by the snow melt." Jessica gazed out at the steep, greening hills of County Durham. Not a fortnight since they had been blanketed in unseasonable white, at just the wrong moment for the flocks. Now, in the late May sunshine, with puffs of cloud sailing overhead, nothing could have looked more benign.
She pushed aside the faded green velvet curtain to achieve a better view of the carriage drive and there was the long-awaited figure, slim and straight, astride a dapple grey. "He's here!" Picking up her skirts, she sped from the room, hurried across the hall and flung open the front door just as her brother dismounted. "Nathan! Oh, my dear, you're home at last."
Heedless of the tears of joy streaking down her cheeks, she ran down the steps and hugged him fiercely. He returned the embrace with one arm, the other being occupied with his horse, whichsnorted in disgust and sidestepped.
"Jess." There was a catch in his throat, too. "It's been so long."
Tad, the indoor man, bounded down the steps to relieve his master of the reins. "I s'll take him round to t'stables, Sir Nathan. Welcome home, sir."
Nathan shook his hand. They were much of an age and had shared more than a few scrapes together in early youth. While they exchanged a word, Jessica stepped back and examined her brother. He had been nineteen when he left Langdale, little more than a boy. At two-and-twenty he was unmistakably a man, tempered in the fire of war. He still bore himself proudly erect as he had ever since he became conscious that his sister had the advantage of him in height as well as age. Though he had grown an inch or two during his absence, he would never be much taller than her, but then she was tall for a female.
She slipped her arm into his. "Come in, Lieutenant Franklin. You must be tired. You are just in time for tea, and Mrs. Ancaster has been baking all your favourites ever since we received your letter from Liverpool."
The butler, Hayes, was waiting at the front door, the folds of his usually lugubrious bloodhound face rearranged in a beam of delight, tears trickling down his wrinkled cheeks. Behind him every servant in the household had already gathered to greet the master, including a stable hand and even one of the shepherds.
Jessica saw that, with his usual punctiliousness, Nathan was going to speak with each of them right down to the scullery maid. Leaving him to it, she rejoined Miss Tibbett in the drawing room.
"How is Sir Nathan?" that lady enquired, going so far as to set her volume aside.
"He looks very well. Handsomer than ever, and his hair still gold to my straw." She tried to pout but laughed for joy. "I cannot bear to spoil today. The bad news can wait until the morning."
With Tibby's support, she succeeded in keeping Nathan busy all evening telling of his adventures in America. Despite the new maturity of his appearance, he had not lost his youthful enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, Jessica thought as she prepared for bed, that probably meant that he was still liable to abrupt descents from the heights to the depths. More than ever she shrank from disclosing the horrid truth. She lay long awake, her mind running round in circles seeking a way out of their difficulties.
Though she was an early riser, Nathan was already at breakfast when she entered the dining room. Miss Tibbett joined them shortly thereafter, just as Nathan said, "Will you ride about the estate with me this morning, Jess? I cannot say how grateful I am for your care of Langdale since Father died."
"I could have done nothing without Rab Mackie," she demurred.
"Yes, I know Father relied on him, and I have no intention of looking for a new factor, I assure you."
The moment could no longer be postponed. Fortifying herself with a gulp of hot, sweet tea, Jessica said, "I fear I have something to tell you which will come as an unpleasant shock."
He frowned and put down his knife and fork. "About Mackie?"
"No, about Langdale. I think we are going to have to leave."
"To leave Langdale? You cannot be serious. The Franklins have been here two hundred years--we leased the land from the Crown even before the Vane family bought Raby Castle."
"One hundred and ninety-eight years come Michaelmas, to be precise. The second ninety-nine year lease is about to expire."
"And Lord Darlington will not renew it?" Nathan sounded puzzled and annoyed, not yet shocked. "Why on earth not? The Vanes have always been most friendly and accommodating. His lordship even helped Father obtain my commission."
"The earl no longer owns Langdale. It has been sold to a Yorkshireman called Scunthwaite. He is asking such an inflated figure for renewal of the lease that I can only suppose he does not want us to take it up. Indeed, we cannot possibly come up with such a sum by Michaelmas, and he refuses to let us take a shorter lease or even to pay in installments."
Looking at Nathan's suddenly pale face, Jessica wished she had found a way to soften the blow. She put her hand over his but he shook it off.
"There must be something we can do," he said in desperation.
"Tell him," said Miss Tibbett.
Jessica gazed unseeing at her plate. "Mr. Scunthwaite wants to marry me."
After a moment of heavy silence her brother said tentatively, "I don't suppose..."
"Nathan, he's fifty and fat!"
"And shockingly vulgar," Miss Tibbett added.
"I see. Then of course that's out of the question." This time he took her hand. She knew the despair in his hazel eyes was mirrored in her own.
"Marriage!" said Miss Tibbett in a portentous voice. They both turned and stared at her. The long, narrow face bore a look of excitement usually reserved for the acquisition of a new volume of some obscure treatise on Roman Britain. As she nodded meaningfully, her spectacles, perched on top of her head, slid down to entangle themselves in loops of iron grey hair and the ribbons of her plain cambric cap. "That is the answer," she continued, fiddling in an absentminded way with the eyeglasses which now dangled over one ear. "I wonder that I did not think of it sooner."
"But Tibby, you agreed that I cannot possibly marry that dreadful man." As she spoke, Jessica moved around the table to assist in the disentanglement, a task she performed so frequently as to make it automatic.
"There is more than one fish in the sea. Thank you, dear." She returned the spectacles to her nose and peered over them as Jessica resumed her seat. "One of you must find a wealthy spouse."
Sunk in gloom, Nathan did not respond.
"That is all very well," Jessica objected, "but, though I don't mean to boast, most of the eligible gentlemen in the county have been my suitors at one time or another and the few rich ones are already wed."
"County Durham is a desert. We must go to Aquae Sulis!"
"To Bath? It's true that the heroines of novels are forever finding husbands there. I suppose there is no other reason for choosing that city?"
Miss Tibbett blushed. "I cannot deny an ulterior motive," she said guiltily. "I have longed this age to see the Roman remains. However, Bath has other advantages. The London Season is almost over, and besides, London is bound to be more expensive."
"And it is easier to gain entrée to Bath Society, I believe." Jessica was beginning to consider the suggestion seriously. "The cost of post horses would be prohibitive, but we could go on the stage, and there must be cheap lodgings to be found."
"Oh dear no, that will never do. If you wish to attract the right sort of person, you must keep up appearances."
"Yes, of course. I shall sell Great-Aunt Matilda's diamonds and we shall do the thing in style."
"No!" Nathan exploded. "I cannot allow you to sell your most valuable jewels for my sake."
"They are too hideously old-fashioned to wear," Jessica pointed out. "Besides, it will be for my sake, too. I have no objection to catching a wealthy husband, just so he be amiable, and even if we fail it will be a famous adventure. You have been all the way to America, but I have never gone farther afield than Eboracum and Hadrian's Wall."
"Eboracum?" Nathan looked blank. He had spent fewer years under Miss Tibbett's tutelage than his sister.
"The Roman name for York," the governess reminded him.
He made an impatient gesture. "If you are willing to sell the diamonds, Jess, will they not bring enough to pay for the lease?" he asked.
"No, I had already thought of that and had them valued in Durham, but they would pay for a few weeks in Bath and even enable us to cut a dash." Jessica's hazel eyes sparkled at the prospect.
"I cannot countenance such deceit!" cried Nathan. "To put on a show so as to lure innocents into our net would be utterly dishonourable. I had rather resign myself to living in genteel poverty."
"So should not I." The sparkle in her eyes was now militant. "I don't mean to suggest that you should elope with an heiress without her parents' permission. If I am so lucky as to receive an offer from the right sort of gentleman, you may be sure I shall not accept it without revealing my true circumstances. Think of Langdale, Nathan. Can you bear to let it go, after it has been in the family for two centuries, without making every effort to keep it?"
"Of course not," he said wretchedly. "If only there was another way! Surely it would be enough for one of us to marry?"
"To be sure, but if we both make the attempt it will double our chances. You might succeed where I fail. On the other hand, if I am betrothed before you, then you can withdraw from the hunt. The search, I mean," she amended. "Hunt" sounded shockingly mercenary, and her brother's tender sensibilities must be spared.
"I wish I had not sold out," he groaned. "Perhaps I should re-enlist and dash over to Belgium to fight Boney."
"Nathan, no!" Jessica was aghast. "You have done your duty for your country and now it's time to think of yourself and your family."
"Don't worry, Jess, I'm tired of fighting." He managed to smile. "All I want is to settle down and raise sheep. It did not seem too much to hope for."
At last Nathan allowed himself to be persuaded at least to go to Bath. With her usual energy, Jessica at once set about making arrangements. Between Papa's illness, mourning, and Nathan's absence, she had had her fill of responsibilities these past years. It was her duty to her family to try to save Langdale, but she had every intention of enjoying herself in the attempt.
A fortnight later, on a wet evening in mid June, a post-chaise rattled into the yard of the White Hart at Bath. A waiter bearing a huge black umbrella ran up to open the door and Jessica stepped out onto the cobbles, followed by Miss Tibbett, Nathan, and a maid who had been pressed into duty as an abigail. Tad jumped down from the back and the party proceeded into the inn to be greeted by the landlord in person.
"Sir Nathan Franklin?" he said, bowing and rubbing his hands together. "A suite has been reserved as requested, sir. First floor front, overlooking the Pump Room. I trust that will be satisfactory, sir?"
"Most satisfactory," said Miss Tibbett, a gleam in her eye.
"Dinner in half an hour, sir?" enquired the landlord as he ushered them up the stairs.
Nathan remaining moodily silent, Jessica answered, "That will do very well, thank you."
As soon as the door closed behind them, Miss Tibbett rushed to the window of their private parlour. "The Pump Room!" she exclaimed rapturously. "Built on the very site where the Romans used to drink the healing waters of Sulis Minerva's sacred well."
"How did anyone dare commit the sacrilege of building over it?" Jessica teased, drawing off her gloves as she joined her at the window to peer through the drizzle at the pillared facade opposite. "We shall have a splendid view if it stops raining."
"I daresay this is the finest room in the house," said Nathan in a voice of doom.
"We shall not be here long, for I mean to begin the search for lodgings first thing tomorrow morning. Asking for a garret would have compromised our reputations right from the start."
"As would arriving by stage coach," Miss Tibbett agreed. "It was excessively clever of you, Jessica, to think of hiring a chaise in Chippenham, just for the last stage."
"And it was clever of Nathan to think of waiting until we reached London to sell the diamonds." She saw his expression brighten. "They brought a much better price than the Durham jeweller offered. We shall be able to afford a few extravagances without ruining our budget."
Tad came in with the luggage and the ladies retired to their chambers to tidy themselves for dinner. Her room was small but comfortable, Jessica noted as she took off her bonnet and set it carefully on the dressing table. It was her best bonnet, the finest Durham had to offer, but she knew it was sadly unmodish. The thought failed to disturb her. She had every intention of refurbishing her wardrobe in the fashionable shops of Milsom Street.
The maid, Sukey, knocked and came in. "Can I help you, miss?" she offered.
Jessica looked at her, nonplussed. "You could hang up my pelisse," she suggested dubiously.
She had always managed perfectly well without a personal maid, but an abigail was necessary for appearance's sake. Tad was doubtless hovering over Nathan, attempting to play his new role of valet, which he was to alternate with that of footman. Jessica smiled as she recalled his delight in his smart bottle-green livery.
For the present, she reminded herself, appearances were all-important.