Read an Excerpt
From the Prologue:
Becky Collins was back at Hunsford, not at the parsonage, where she had spent much of her childhood, endeavouring to fulfill the expectations of her zealous father, Reverend Collins, and avoid the censure of his indomitable patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but at Edgewater-the property in the county of Kent, where she now lived.
She was, of course, no longer Miss Collins; having been married before she was twenty years of age to Mr Anthony Tate, a publisher of some power and influence in the community, she had been considered to be a woman of some rank and substance.
Thanks to the generosity of her husband, who, having separated from his wife, had elected to live out the rest of his days in America, where he had recently died, she was now a reasonably wealthy woman. Having sold their house in London, Becky had acquired Edgewater, an investment that had the universal approval of most if not all of her friends and relations.
Standing at the window of what was to be her private study and work room, Becky looked out across the grounds of her new home and smiled as her eyes took in the lovely aspect across the lake from which the property took its name. There was a singular sense of satisfaction in knowing that everything in this place would be as she had planned it; she no longer took directions from nor waited upon the approval of anyone. Neither was she obliged to submit her accounts to her husband's clerk for payment.
Becky Tate was at last her own woman and she enjoyed that above anything. For the very first time in her life, Becky had chosen where she was going to spend her time, just as she was now free to decide how that time was to be spent. It was for her an especially thrilling sensation, the likes of which she had not known in many years. Looking at the work she had begun at Edgewater, she could not resist a frisson of excitement as she contemplated the future that lay before her, a future to be determined entirely by her own wishes and limited only by her resources.
Becky was glad to have left Derbyshire. Her son Walter and his family now occupied the Tate residence at Matlock. She had been at Edgewater throughout the Winter, save for a visit to Pemberley at Christmas.
It was February and Winter had not as yet released its hold upon the countryside, though here in Kent it was decidedly warmer than it had been in Derbyshire. While many trees were still bare, but for the merest hint of tender green buds upon their boughs, the ground beneath them was broken by impatient clumps of bulbs pushing up out of the soil-snowdrops and crocuses, amidst drifts of scilla and bright wood anemones that covered the ground under the poplars in the spinney.
Becky loved the haphazard nature of the gardens at Edgewater, where large trees and evergreen shrubs, untamed by the fashionable art of topiary, held sway, while under them and along the edge of the lake, myriad wildflowers bloomed freely, unrestrained by the discipline of a formal garden.
Quite unlike the tidy beds at Hunsford parsonage, which her father had tended, or the hedged formality of Rosings Park in the era of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the grounds at Edgewater appealed to her more spontaneous nature with their lack of orderliness and regulation.
As a young girl, Becky had hated Rosings Park with its innumerable rules and its regiment of retainers all trained to do Her Ladyship's bidding, without question. There had been so many gardeners and minions, she had been afraid to pick a bloom without permission, lest it should disturb the grand pattern of the most celebrated rose garden in the south of England!
Here, it was very different; she could do exactly as she pleased. On an impulse, she decided to go out into the garden and gather some flowers for her study. Collecting a basket and secateurs from a cupboard under the stairs, Becky went out through the side door onto a wide terrace, down the steps, and out toward the lake. There, the flowers were in abundance, stretching as far as she could see, across the water and into the meadows beyond. Clusters of blue scilla in the spinney caught her eye; they were a favourite with her.
She was about to take the path around the lake when her maid, Nelly, appeared, running towards her.
"Please, ma'am, Mr Jonathan Bingley is here to see you," she said.
"Jonathan Bingley? Are you sure, Nelly? Mr Bingley is in Hertfordshire at Netherfield. I know he is, because my sister Catherine and Mr Burnett have travelled there to visit Mr and Mrs Bingley only a few days ago." But Nelly was adamant.
"Indeed, ma'am, it is Mr Bingley. He said he has come directly from Netherfield to see you, and he says it's a matter of great urgency, ma'am." Puzzled and incredulous, Becky handed her basket to Nelly and hurried indoors to find Jonathan Bingley standing by the fire in the sitting room. She knew the very moment she set eyes on him, he was the bearer of bad news. Jonathan was wearing full formal black and his handsome face was unusually grave. As she entered the room, he came towards her at once. Becky did not know what to think, but as her mind raced and her heart thumped in her chest, he took her hand. Becky's hand trembled as he held it; she knew something had happened, but she was afraid to ask the inevitable question.
When he spoke, his voice was low and gentle. "Becky, I am truly sorry to be the bearer of such sad news, but last night your mama, Mrs Collins, was taken ill suddenly and though the doctor was called to her immediately, she took a turn for the worse and passed away just before dawn. Anna has gone with Catherine to Longbourn, and I have come as soon as I could, to take you back to Hertfordshire."
He was gentle and concerned as he broke the news, and as she wept, he held her awhile. When she was calmer and seated herself upon the sofa by the fire, Jonathan offered to get her a glass of sherry or something stronger and when she refused, he went to find the maid and order some tea. All this he did as though it was quite the most ordinary thing to do. Mrs Charlotte Collins was dead.
She had been ill, intermittently, since a bad bout of influenza in the early Autumn, but had seemed to recover her health. However, a damp, cold Winter had proved too much for her weakened body; pneumonia had set in. Her eldest daughter, Catherine, and her husband, Frank Burnett, had arrived in Hertfordshire only just in time to attend to her before her condition worsened.
As Nelly arrived with the tea, Becky's tears returned. The news had hit her like a thunderbolt. She had never been especially close to her mother, unlike Catherine, but she'd had great affection and respect for her. Her sense of shock was all the greater because the invitation from the Bingleys to Catherine and Mr Burnett to visit Netherfield had been extended to her, too. They had at first made plans to travel together to Hertfordshire and visit their mother at Longbourn, but Becky had changed her mind, deciding to return to Edgewater and supervise some of the work being done around the house and grounds. She was keen to get it done right.
She had written to her mother making her excuses and promising to visit her in the Spring. Now that promise would never be kept.