Read an Excerpt
Charlotte watched as the last of the mourners climbed into their carriages and were driven away. There had not been many of them because Lord Hobart had been old and had outlived most of his contemporaries and in the last four or five years had become something of a recluse, receiving few visitors and never going out beyond the boundaries of Easterley Manor grounds, which stretched from the tiny village of Parson's End in one direction and the lighthouse on the cliff in the other.
"My lady, a sad day."
The parson's voice brought her back from the contemplation of the sodden garden and the last coach disappearing round the bend in the drive. "Yes, Reverend, it is. I shall miss him."
"What will you do?" The Reverend Peter Fuller was a tall man, as thin as some of his half-starved parishioners, and Charlotte often wondered how much of his own food he gave away and how often he waived the tithe from some farmer who had been beset by disaster. He was a true Christian gentleman and they often worked together to alleviate the plight of the poor in the village and in trying to bring a little schooling to the children.
"What do you mean?"
"Why, my lady, your father-in-law was a very old man, you must have given a thought to what might happen when he died. He has another son and he will surely be coming back to take over."
"He is in India where his father banished him, as I am sure you know, Reverend. No one has secrets in this village."Cecil Hobart, younger son of his lordship, was the proverbial black sheep of the family. He had been an inveterate gambler in his youth and his father had stood buff for him on so many occasions, paying debts amounting to thousands of guineas, that in the end he had said "enough is enough'and packed him off to India to make his own way in the East India Company. At the time his older half-brother, Charlotte's husband, had been alive and the banishment had presented no problems of succession. But Grenville had been killed in Portugal in 1809, leaving Charlotte a widow and the mother of two daughters. There was no male heir but the absent Cecil.
Even after Grenville's death, Lord Hobart had not recalled his younger son and Charlotte and her two daughters continued to live in the family home, which Charlotte ran with commendable efficiency. In the last two years she had been nurse as well as daughter and housekeeper.
"He will come back just as soon as he hears the news that he is the new Lord Hobart," the Reverend went on. "And if he has not changed " He paused, wondering how much he dare say. Cecil Hobart's reputation was such that he feared for any lady living under his roof. He did not know exactly how old she was, but guessed it was less than thirty, and she was still a very attractive woman with a tendency to believe the best of everyone in spite of evidence to the contrary. It would be easy for a ruthless man to pull the wool over her eyes.
Charlotte turned to face him, her soft aquamarine eyes betraying her sadness at the loss of the man who had been a second father to her and whom she had dearly loved. She knew that her calm, well-ordered life was about to change, that was inevitable, but she didn't want to think about it while grief filled her mind to the exclusion of everything but dayto-day tasks and shielding her two young daughters as far as possible. "I wrote to Cecil several weeks ago when I realised the end could not be far off,"she said. "In spite of the estrangement, I know his lordship wanted to see him again before he died. Alas, it was not to be, but perhaps he is on his way now. I must look after everything until he arrives. He may wish me to carry on as I have been doing."
"And if he does not? Have you no family you can apply to?"
"None, except Lord Falconer, my mother's uncle, and I have never met him. He succeeded to the title when his brother, my grandfather, died, but he quarrelled with Mama when she wanted to marry Papa and said he washed his hands of her." She smiled briefly. "His dire warnings that she would founded; my parents were blissfully happy until Papa was killed at Trafalgar. My mother died of a fever less than a year later. Great-uncle Joseph did not write and offer condolences and I assumed the rift was complete. By then I had married Sir Grenville " She stopped, remembering how bereft she had felt on learning of her husband's death eight years before. Coming so soon after her parents' demise, it had been a terrible blow, but Lord Hobart had been a great comfort. And now, he too, had gone. She had never felt so alone.
"I understand, but, my lady, I strongly urge you to write to your relative. Time may have healed the rift and you may have need of him."
She smiled wearily. "I thank you for your concern, Reverend, but I will not go cap in hand to someone who has never even acknowledged my existence. Besides, I do not want to leave Parson's End. I have commitments here. I cannot leave the house and servants with no one in charge, or the village children who rely on me for their schooling."
She had started the school after Grenville died to give her something to take her mind off her grief and what had begun as a kind of balm for her grieving heart had become a passion to see the education of the poor improved.
"That may be so," he said, smiling indulgently. "But that is not reason enough to stay if life becomes intolerable, is it?"
"There is no reason to suppose it will be intolerable and Fanny and Lizzie are upset enough over the death of their grandfather without dragging them away from the only home they have known."
He had said his piece and there was nothing more he could do for her, except keep a fatherly eye on her. He took his leave and set off at a brisk walk down the drive, his gown flapping out behind him. Charlotte watched until he was out of sight and then turned back indoors.
It was an ancient house, with irregular rooms, uneven floors, heavy old furniture that had been in its place for generations. Some rooms, like the late Lady Hobart's boudoir, and the drawing room, had been decorated in the modern fashion with light, stylish furniture and colourful drapes, but much of the rest predated the Civil War. But she loved it, old and new. She loved its huge fireplaces, commodious cupboards and chests, its long deep windows overlooking the gardens, impeccably kept and bordered by pine woods on one side and the cliffs and the North Sea on the other. She did not want to leave it.
Old Lord Hobart had been confined to his bedchamber for the past two years, but, even so, the house seemed empty without him. His presence had always filled it, even when he was not actively engaged in the running of it. He had been a big, much loved man, especially by Charlotte and her daughters, but the servants, too, had admired and respected him. He had been a stern employer, but a fair one, and because Charlotte had his unswerving confidence and support, they had obeyed her as if it were the master of the house himself who had issued the orders. Charlotte did not expect anything to change in that respect, not until the new master arrived and took over. After that, she did not know what would happen. The Reverend had not said anything that had not already crossed her mind.
Cecil Hobart was the son of his lordship's second marriage and several years younger than Grenville. She had met him once or twice when she and Grenville had first been married, but the brothers did not get on well together and Cecil spent most of his time in lodgings in London and only came to Easterley Manor when he needed funds. She had not been present in the room the last time he had visited, but she had heard the angry words even through thick closed doors. Afterwards Lord Hobart had sent his younger son not only from his house, but from the country.
"Ten thousand, he owed," Grenville had told her later. "And not a hope of recouping. Father threatened to let him stew in his own juice, but of course he could not do that. He has paid his debts and undertaken to make him a reasonable allowance, so long as he stays in India."
"For the rest of his life?" she had asked. "One must suppose so, unless he can produce evidence he is a reformed character, but I cannot see that happening."
"What will happen when your father when his lordship dies?"
"Then, my dear, the responsibility will rest with me. I shall do whatever my father asks me to do."
Nothing more had been said, but how was he to know, how was anyone to know, that Grenville would decide to go off on that ill-fated mission to Spain in 1809 and get himself killed alongside General Moore at Corunna? Charlotte, mother of two daughters, Elizabeth, then three years old and Frances, fourteen months, had begged him not to go, that as his father's heir he need not, but Grenville had a strong sense of duty and adventure and seemed convinced of his indestructibility. "General Moore needs experienced officers," he had said. "The Spaniards are brave men but ill disciplined and against Napoleon won't stand a chance without our help. I could not refuse to go. We shall be home again in no time."
She could not dissuade him and he had set off full of hope and enthusiasm, never to return. Lord Hobart had taken the loss of his son and heir very badly and, though they had comforted each other, it had been the beginning of his downhill slide into senility.
The girls, hearing her mother's visitor leaving, had come along the hall from the kitchen where Cook had been trying to cheer them up with sugar plums. They came each side of her and put their arms about her waist.
"Come, girls, tea in the nursery, I think," she told them. "It is peaceful up there and will give the servants the opportunity to tidy up after our visitors. Then we will play a game of cross-questions before bedtime."
"Will we never see Grandpapa again?" Fanny asked "Never ever?"
Charlotte looked down at her, wondering how to answer. A blunt "never' might be accurate, but would only add to the child's grief. While she paused, Lizzie answered for her. "Course not, he's been put in the ground, but Miss Quinn says he won't stay there but go to heaven and we may see him again when we go there ourselves."She gave a huge sigh. "But she said it would be years and years and by then we will be old ourselves."
Charlotte hugged them both, these daughters who were so dear to her and the only legacy her husband had left her. There was a tiny annuity that had been settled on her as part of the marriage contract, but as the late Lord Hobart had paid all her bills, most of that had been spent on helping the poor among the villagers. Unless the new Lord Hobart saw fit to give her and her daughters a home and continue as his father had done, they would be in dire straits.
Lord Hobart had not expected to lose his heir, nor his wits, and his will had been made years before when Grenville was alive and Cecil out of favour. The house and estate would go to his elder son, who would tend it and care for it and make it pay just as he had done and his father before him. Cecil had, according to his lordship, already been given all that was due to him when his gambling debts were paid and his allowance fixed upon. The old man had been far more interested in his grandchildren, those already born and those yet to come and all unentailed funds had been left in trust for them, to be administered by trustees. It was an unusual bequest and Charlotte wondered how it would stand up in law, but she had no wish to try to overturn it. It provided for her daughters' dowries and that was all that concerned her. But Grenville had predeceased his half-brother and the Manor now belonged to Cecil.
Mother and daughters mounted the carved oak staircase which rose from the middle of the tiled hall and then up another set of stairs to the second-floor nursery suite and schoolroom where Joan Quinn held sway over her charges. She was waiting for them, her stern, upright bearing belying the loving feelings she had for the two little girls. "Has everyone gone, my lady?" she asked Charlotte.
"Yes, Quinny, it is all over and now we must try to return to normal."
"Of course. Tea has been brought up. Will you stay and have some with us?"
"Yes, and I promised the girls a game before bedtime. Tomorrow, we will do whatever we usually do on a Thursday."
They sat round the nursery table and ate bread and butter, muffins and honey cakes, washed down with weak tea. After five days of being unable to eat properly, Charlotte suddenly found that she was hungry and the simple meal was exactly what she needed. She sipped her tea and surveyed her daughters. They had been broken-hearted by the death of their grandfather, who had always managed to talk to them on their own level and thought up interesting and informative games for them, who had taught them the names of the wild flowers that grew in the park and woods, took them scavenging on the beach and showed them the course of his military campaigns on a map. He had been a great soldier in his day, just as their father had been.
Lizzie was raven-haired like her father, with brown eyes so like his that Charlotte was sometimes taken aback when she saw in them the intelligence and pride and refusal to be beaten that had been so characteristic of him. Fanny was softer, more rounded; her hair was paler than her sister's and her complexion pinker. She was the more sensitive of the two and found it hard to accept that Grandpa was not in his room dozing, as he had done so often of late.
"Do you think the new Lord Hobart will come?" Miss Quinn asked Charlotte. She had been Charlotte's governess when she was a child and, when she grew too old to need one, had stayed with her as her maid. Now she fulfilled both functions.
"New Lord Hobart?" queried Lizzie. "What do you mean? Who is he?"
Miss Quinn looked at Charlotte without speaking. "He is your Uncle Cecil," Charlotte answered for her. "I expect he will be coming soon to take Grandpapa's place "
"No, no," Lizzie cried. "I don't want him to. I don't want anyone in Grandpa's place."
"Nevertheless, he will come because he owns the house and the estate now and we will make him welcome."
"Well, I shan't. I shall hate him."
"Why? It is not his fault your grandfather died." Even as she spoke she wondered how true that was. How much had sorrow over his younger son contributed to his slide downhill? The loss of Grenville had been the main factor, she was sure, but after that, the estrangement from his younger son had preyed upon his mind, though he was too stubborn to hold out the olive branch. Charlotte knew this, though his lordship rarely spoke of him. A second son, happily in the bosom of his family, prepared to work and take his proper place in the scheme of things might have mitigated his loss. Perhaps Cecil had changed, perhaps he was now ready to face up to his responsibilities
She distracted the children from the conversation and they finished their tea and set about the game of cross-questions, which occupied them for an hour or so. After they had gone to bed, Charlotte went back downstairs, back to reality, and that set her wondering about the future again and whether her brother-in-law could be relied upon to give her a home. But even if he did, she would still need to find an income from somewhere in order to retain her independence. Whatever happened, she must protect and provide for her children.