Prejudice and pride demand Reverend Dominic Markham marry a suitable lady, but he is spellbound by Harriet, an unsuitable widow.
St James Square, London
Late Spring, 1814
Harriet Stanton clutched her three year-old son’s hand while she waited, with the utmost trepidation, for the front door of the Earl of Pennington’s imposing house to open. In desperate need of reassurance, Harriet glanced at her generous patroness, Georgianne Tarrant, who wore a fashionable cream muslin gown and pelisse. With a sigh, Harriet accepted she looked like an insignificatnt sparrow, in her shabby, plain black clothes, by comparison to Mrs Tarrant, whose clothes and every movement revealed the self-assurance of a beautiful young matron married to an extremely wealthy gentleman.
Harriet shivered, wary of the two bruisers, employed by Major Tarrant to protect his wife, who stood behind them.
Protect Mrs Tarrant from what? She decided it would be impertinent to ask.
Ill-at-ease on the verge of what might be a significant change in her life, Harriet turned her head to look over her shoulder at the muscular men, and Johnson, an intrepid former soldier, whom Mrs Tarrant employed to help with her charity, Foundation House for the Betterment of Former Soldiers and Their Families.
Well, she was a soldier’s widow, whom, with Johnson’s help, Mrs Tarrant rescued. Yet what would happen if the earl rejected her and her son?
While Harriet fought the familiar panic, which churned her stomach, the glossy black-painted door with brass fittings swung open, revealing the haughty middle-aged butler to whom she spoke on a previous occasion. A quiver passed across his face at the sight of the group on the doorstep. He took a small step back across the spotless black-veined white marble floor. Perhaps they alarmed him.
Georgianne offered him her card.
The dignified servant did not accept it. Instead, he looked down his nose. “His lordship is not at home.”
Harriet held her son’s small hand a little tighter. “Come,” she told him, prepared to turn away from the door.
“Wait.” Georgianne’s imperious voice halted Harriet.
In response to a graceful flick of Georgianne’s gloved fingers, the burly bruisers stepped forward to stand on either side of the threshold.
“I think you should reconsider,” the determined matron advised the butler. “If you shut the door in my face, my men might prove themselves capable of breaking the door down. Admit us”
The butler’s face paled. He stepped back to allow them to enter the house.
Applause, however well-deserved, would be vulgar, so Harriet did not obey her instinct to clap.
“Please follow me.” The butler glanced at the bruisers and Johnson. “Not the three of you.”
Georgianne squared her shoulders. “It is not for you to decide who accompanies me.”
His back rigid with palpable indignation, the butler led them through a hall, perfumed by vases of white lilies and roses. When they followed him up a grand staircase with wrought iron bannisters, light from a circular skylight, set in the ceiling of the top floor, poured onto them. On the first floor, still holding her son’s hand, Harriet walked next to Mrs Tarrant along a wide gallery, hung with oil paintings of ladies and gentlemen dressed in the elaborate clothes of bygone ages.
The butler opened one of a pair of doors. “Mrs Tarrant and her companions, my lord,” he announced.
Wide-eyed, Harriet stepped into the room. She looked around. No expense had been spared in this house. A crystal chandelier hung above a mahogany table set with handpainted china and monogrammed silver flatware.
While Johnson and the bruisers chose positions by the walls in the room hung with striped pea-green and gold wallpaper, an old gentleman, glared at his visitors from his seat at the table.
With keen interest, Harriet scrutinised the peer of the realm. The earl’s purple turban did not flatter his wrinkled face with dark shadows under his eyes.
Pennington glared at the butler. “What the devil, Jarvis? How many times have I instructed you not to admit visitors when I am in the breakfast parlour in a state of undress?”
“Mrs Tarrant wouldn’t be denied, my lord,” the butler murmured, his face ashen.
Harriet glanced from the earl to Jarvis. Why should the man fear the earl?
His lordship smoothed a sleeve of his purple, gold embroidered banyan. “Don’t suppose Mrs Tarrant would be denied – glad I did not marry the termagent,” he muttered. “Jarvis, leave us.”
Harriet gasped, amazed by the earl’s unpardonable rudeness. Mrs Tarrant ignored it.
Harriet’s upper lip curled inward. The idea of the elderly nobleman, with prominent veins and dark splotches on his hands, married to a beauty young enough to be his granddaughter repulsed her.
The earl glared at Mrs Tarrant. “Why are you here? Your husband will kill me if –”
The expression in Georgianne Tarrant’s china-blue eyes hardened. “You wanted me to marry you to produce a son. Why, when you already had a legitimate heir?”
The colour in the earl’s cheeks deepened. “Don’t mention my nephew, Wilfred Stanton. The thought of that clergyman inheriting my title sickens me.”
Georgianne beckoned to Harriet to step forward with her son. “I shall explain matters after you have the courtesy to invite us to sit.”
Pennington scowled.“Ladies, be seated at the table.”
Faint with nervous anticipation, with her son on her lap, Harriet perched on a chair next to her benefactress.
“My lord, I am here to inform you have another heir,” Georgianne informed him.
“Can it be?” Pennington asked in a broken voice.
“Yes. May I present him? George Stanton, Viscount Castleton, and his mamma, Harriet Stanton, Vicountess Castleton.”
Harriet caught her breath. Would her father-in-law accept them? Surely he would not reject her handsome son. “Don’t be shy, George, the gentleman is your grandfather. Please get down from my lap to make your bow.”
Her son shook his head, and plugged his mouth with his thumb.
Georgianne shrugged before she spoke. “My lord, there is no reason for you not to acknowledge your grandson and daughter-in-law. Syddon, my attorney, has examined their claim. He assures me a court of law will uphold it.”
Pennington leaned forward. “Have you proof?” he demanded.
In response to the earl’s sharp tone of voice, the bruisers, who had been standing still as soldiers before a superior officer shuffled their feet.
“Yes, I assumed you would be suspicious.” With her ususal grace, Georgianne beckoned to Johnson, who stepped forward to hand a leather folder to the earl.
Pennington pushed his plate forward to make space for the documents the folder contained. His eyebrows raised, he rifled through them. “I accept these are valid because I doubt Syddon, who I know is a famous attorney known for his integrity, would have stooped to forgery or aided and abetted deception.”
He stared at Harriet, appearing to come to terms with the idea she and his grandson existed. Embarrassed, she fidgeted. A hot flush flooded her cheeks.
“Lady Castleton, why did not you come to me after my son died?” the earl enquired, in a tone that seemed to imply she was guilty of an offence.
Intimidated by the harsh old man, her mouth dry, Harriet swallowed before she managed to answer. “Despite the longstanding rift between you and my late husband, my lord, I wrote to you many times from Portugal. When you did not reply, I came to England destitute and in despair. In your absence, your servants denied me entry to this house.” She summoned her courage, “Johnson, a soldier well-known to me and my husband in the Peninsula, approached me in Brighton,” she explained, with more confidence. “Later, he introduced us to my good angel, Mrs Tarrant. But for him, your grandson and I would have starved, most probably to death.”
The expression on Pennington’s face softened, the skin stretched less tightly across his forehead. “This is terrible,” he responded, in a softer tone than the one he previously spoke in. “I did not receive your letters. Last year, after my eldest son died, I searched the Iberian Peninsular, walked the battle fields and visited many places in search of information. I heard rumours that my younger son married, and that after he fell at the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro his posthumous son was born. Alas, I could not substantiate them. No matter how hard I tried, I found no trace of you or my grandson.”
“Thank you for searching for us.” She tried to calm her misgivings with the thought that age might have mellowed her father-in-law. Maybe he was no longer the cruel, unreasonable nobleman her husband once described.
“No need for you to tell me more about your desperate situation, Lady Castleton, you and my grandson are welcome here, most welcome. From now on, you shall live with me.” His thin lips stretched into a smile.
How kind of him. The tension seeped out of every muscle in her body. “Thank you, my lord,” she replied, with great relief.
“Papa, you must call me Papa.” The earl turned his head to look at Georgianne. “However much I begrudge it, I am indebted to you, Madam.” A malicious glint appeared in his eyes. “It seems my sanctimonious nephew, Wilfred Stanton, will not be the next earl.” He chuckled. “Mrs Tarrant, I can only imagine the expression on his face when the news of my heir’s existence is broken to him.”
“My lord, you forget I am well acquainted with Mister Stanton whose wife is my cousin. You are unjust. I know Mister Stanton is a God-fearing gentleman worthy of respect from you and everyone else.” Georgianne stood. “Now, I am sure you wish to make a generous donation to my charity and reward Johnson, who brought Lady Castleton and her son to my attention.”
Pennington nodded, a sour expression on his face.
The earl rang a bell. The door opened; the butler preceded a pair of footmen into the parlour.
“Instruct the housekeeper to have my late wife’s apartment prepared for Lady Castleton, and the nursery made ready for Lord Castleton. Tell her to arrange for a maidservant to attend to the child until a nurse is engaged.”
Harriet shook her head. “My lord –” she began.
“Papa,” he corrected her.
“Papa,” she addressed him with reluctance for this old man could never replace her beloved father. “I would prefer to keep George with me until he is familiar with you and your servants.”
“Very well.” Her father-in-law agreed, his grey eyes suddenly cold as the sea on a winter’s day.
They reminded Harriet of tyrannical officers. She shivered.
“My lord, I shall take my leave.” Georgianne informed Pennington in a neutral tone. “Lady Castleton, when I reach home, I shall send your baggage here. Good day to you. She patted George on his head. “I hope to see you and your son soon. Please visit me whenever you wish.”
* * *
Thoughtful, Georgianne stepped out of the house into sunshine. Should she have warned Harriet about the earl? No, the young widow must judge him for herself. It would be wrong to prejudice her against her father-in-law. For all she knew, Harriet and her son might be the earl’s salvation. Georgianne ignored her inner voice, which expressed strong doubt. Well, she would keep in touch with Harriet, as she did with many other women who benefitted from her help.
Harriet looked out of the drawing room window in Clarencieux Abbey – all stone carving, arched windows and hideous gargoyles – now transformed by her father-in-law into a fashionable gothic mansion. On any other occasion, the view would have delighted her. Beneath a cloudless, azure blue sky, from which the sun poured its welcome warmth, the recently scythed lawn stretched down to the still surface of the large man-made lake fringed by graceful weeping willows on its farthest bank.
Alarmed, she watched the Earl of Pennington, who rode a sleek gelding, and her four year-old son, seated straight-backed on Prince, his strong Exmoor pony, which he doted on. Compared to the eighteen hand dun with black points his grandfather rode, George looked frighteningly small and vulnerable.
No matter how often the earl assured her well-schooled Prince made an excellent riding pony for a young boy, Harriet could not control her fear of an accident.
Moreover, throughout the last year her resentment of the earl’s high-handedness over his grandson’s upbringing, and his total disregard of her wishes concerning it, had swelled to the point of bitterness. Her jaw tightened when she remembered one of his most unwelcome dictates.
“My child,” his lordship had commenced, shortly after she took up residence with him, “in future, my grandson shall be known by his second name, Arthur.”
On that occasion, when her anger flared, she managed to control it. She and Edgar, her late husband, had decided that if they ever had a son, they would name him George. “Although I agree Arthur is a noble name, Papa, why do you want him to be addressed by it?” she had replied, in an attempt to sound reasonable, although her cheeks burned with suppressed wrath.
“Perhaps it is lese majesty to admit that due to the present king’s madness and the Prince Regent’s excesses, their Christian name is not one I consider suitable for my heir,” her father-in-law declared. “After all, my lineage is superior to the Hanover’s. They are nothing more than jumped up minor German royalty with slight claim to English blood.” He paused to flick open his tortoiseshell snuffbox. “My child,” he continued after he indulged in a pinch of snuff, I think, Arthur, the Duke of Wellington’s given name, is more appropriate for my heir.”
She was not his child. Although her temper increased until she thought it would boil over, with great effort she managed to contain it and employ guile. “Papa, I agree Arthur would be an appropriate name for my son, however-” A wave of the earl’s hand silenced her.
“You admire our king, who has lost his wits, more than the hero of Waterloo?”
“No, though I pity His Majesty.”
“I daresay, but perhaps you condone our future king’s excesses.”
She considered the Prince Regent’s shocking reputation and extravagance. “No, Papa.”
Immaculate in a blue coat, off-white nankeen pantaloons, the intricate style of his starched neckcloth faultless, and his silver hair in perfect order, the earl spoke. “We are agreed. From now on we shall call my grandson Arthur instead of George.” His triumphant smile deepened his wrinkles in which powder and rouge clung.”
“Very well, Papa.” Grateful to him for saving them from destitution, she consented out of gratitude.
Informed of the decision by his grandfather, when given his pony six months ago, her delighted son did not object. In fact, after jumping up and down with joy, he petted Prince, and from then on answered to his new name. To Harriet’s chagrin, on one occasion, when she called him George, he stamped his small, well-shod foot. “Grandfather says my name is Arthur.”
“When,” she asked herself, remembering the occasion, “would her father-in-law respect any of her wishes?”
The earl’s gentle smile, which masked an iron-will, repulsed her. His generosity and many gifts, for which she was obliged, made it extremely difficult to protest over his determination to dominate her.
This morning, in response to her request for the pair to walk their horses, the earl inclined his head, smiled, but made no reply. Now, without a leading rein, Prince trotted across the sweep of grass dotted with daisies towards the house beside his grandfather’s well-mannered mount. Harriet’s teeth clamped together. Doubtless the small flowers would be cut with ruthlessness to equal anything else that did not please his lordship.
She clutched a fold of her expensive sprigged muslin morning gown, paid for from the generous allowance allotted to her by Pennington. Guilt and resentment warred within her. Guilt because before the earl acknowledged her and her son, they experienced such hardship that she prayed for death to claim them. Resentment because her strong-minded father-in-law insisted on taking charge of every aspect of Arthur’s life.
In spite of the luxury surrounding her, while she watched Pennington and Arthur ride, her anger increased. The earl doted on Arthur. Indeed, he pandered to him so much that her son had become a small tyrant.
Her hitherto obedient, sweet-natured little boy now indulged in shocking tantrums if his demands were refused. To make matters worse her father-in-law interfered whenever she attempted to discipline the child. Harriet clenched her jaw. Regardless of what Arthur did, the earl did not even allow Arthur’s nurse to punish him.
Harriet wiped angry tears of frustration from her eyes. Her memories could not be wiped away so easily. If only her handsome, debonair young husband, a captain in The Glory Boys,had survived his last battle. Since Edgar’s death, not a day went by when she did not yearn for the sound of his deep voice, his ready smile and their tender, passionate, love making. Even now, Harriet visualised him, magnificent in his black hussar uniform embellished with gold and scarlet. She could almost hear his words. “Smile for me, Harriet, I shall always return to you sound in limb, and in the best of spirits.” Until his demise Edgar evaded the grim reaper so many times that she had believed in her husband’s invincibility.
Harriet closed her eyes, trying to erase the memory of the mental and physical agony of giving birth to a fatherless child in the best quarters in Lisbon, the best her father, a major in the Glory Boy could afford for her. She squeezed back involuntary tears at the recollection of the day on which she received the dreadful news of Papa’s death in the Battle of Toulouse, the final engagement in the campaign against Napoleon before his exile to Elba. Until she glimpsed her child’s frightened face when he returned from a walk with his nurse, for a week she neither ate more than a morsel nor stopped crying.
Until her father’s died, she and Arthur enjoyed his protection. Afterward, although in deperate need of a protector, she refused several marriage proposals. Of course, out of expediency, many army widows did remarry soon afer their husbands’ funerals, but Harriet rejected her suitors.
In spite of her impoverished circumstances, she never considered replacing Edgar in her affections, and marry without love she would not.
Now, at the age of four and twenty, at the thought of what might have been if Edgar lived, tears filled her eyes. After wiping them away with her handkerchief, she watched Arthur and Pennington dismount. Her son laughed in response to something his grandfather said.
Harriet knew she should not be unappreciative of her father-in-law, nevertheless, she resented her separation from Arthur by the nurse appointed by Pennington, in his words “to relieve her of the tiresome task of caring for a child”. Despite hardships she never found it “tiresome” to care for Arthur. Fortunately, she approved of Bessie a young woman, whom Arthur liked, who took excellent care of him.
* * *
“Mamma,” Arthur shouted when he entered the breakfast parlour, “Grandpapa and I went riding.” Arms outstretched he rushed towards the table set with Wedgewood china and an array of monogrammed flatware.
Relieved to see him safe, Harriet stood. Regardless of the risk of her starched muslin gown being crushed, she spread her arms wide to embrace him.
Her father-in-law stepped forward. “Be good enough to remember your station, Arthur. You are not a cottager’s brat.” One hand, marred by age spots gripped the child’s shoulder to prevent him from running forward.
Arthur looked up at his grandfather, a trace of anxiety in his large eyes, the intense blue of the sky on a summer’s day.
Harriet’s eyebrows twitched. The earl did not have the right to insist on formality. Since Arthur’s birth she had cuddled and kissed him, and would continue to do so.
The earl smiled down at the child. “Make your bow, to Lady Castleton.”
Arthur’s shoulders drooped, but he obeyed.
Her father-in-law’s eyes gleaming with unmistakeable triumph, he glanced at her over the top of Arthur’s head of shiny brown curls.
Harriet caught her lower lip between her teeth. No matter how much the earl provoked her, she would not engage in a direct battle over Arthur.
She released her lip. Nonsensical for her father-in-law to have said Lady Castleton instead of your mamma to Arthur, and to have prevented him from running to her for a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Aware of a surge of angry colour, which heated her cheeks, Harriet made up her mind neither to allow the old man to wean her son away from his affection for her, nor to permit him to be in full control of her son.
“Oh, Papa, what harm can it do if Arthur embraces me?” she asked, looking down to give the earl an impression of a submissive daughter-in-law. Without waiting for a reply, she continued to hold out her arms. “Come, my boy, give me my morning kiss.”
Her son looked up at his grandfather for permission.
“Arthur,” Pennington commenced, “Lady Castleton forgets you no longer wear skirts. You are a little man in your trousers and short jacket. In future, you must remember gentlemen are not forever hugging and kissing ladies. Take your place at the table.”
Harriet looked up at her father-in-law. Confound it, none of her ploys to charm the earl ever succeeded. Well, in her son’s presence, she would not brangle with him like a fishwife. She checked her desire to express her indignation. Instead she smiled at Pennington, pretending to be unaware that he did not consider her to have been a suitable wife for his late son.
Although she was not a nobleman’s daughter, her parents had taught her how to conduct herself with decorum. Moreover, she prided herself on the good English blood she inherited from them. By birth, she had nothing to be ashamed of, even if she were ineligible to be considered to be a member of the ton – the so called upper ten thousand persons considered the cream of society – amongst whom the earl numbered.
At the round table, her father-in-law seated himself opposite her with Arthur on his right. The elderly chaplain, good-natured Mister Rivers took his place on the earl’s left.
Her spine stiff, Harriet sat between Arthur, whom the earl insisted should sit next to him, and the secretary, Mister Vaughan; a young man of approximately twenty-five years of age, whose eyes more often than not nursed a merry sparkle, in spite of his patron’s haughty disposition.
No one spoke while the butler supervised the footmen, who put a silver coffee pot in front of Harriet and food on the table.
While Mister Rivers intoned a short grace Harriet wondered what the sycophantic man of the cloth thought of the stone-pillared room decorated in the gothic style.
Harriet’s gaze strayed beyond the arched window, through which she glimpsed the rose garden, bordered by low box hedges, basking in sunshine. “Coffee, or ale, my lord?” Harriet asked.
“Coffee, my dear child.” Despite that gentle smile which Harriet considered artificial, his forehead creased. “On numerous occasions, I have already requested you to call me, papa.”
Although she could not imagine him ever replacing her beloved father in her affection, his request was not unreasonable. “How foolish I am,” Harriet replied with false meekness intended to soften his heart. “I beg your pardon, Papa.” She poured the fragrant beverage into a porcelain cup, hand-painted with Wedgewood’s famous Kutani Crane design.
A footman stepped forward to hand it to his lordship.
“Will you partake of coffee, Mister Rivers?”
“Yes please, Lady Castleton, you are too kind, too gracious.”
Harriet suppressed her desire to giggle at such obsequiousness.
“Yes,” Arthur piped up, while a footman served Mister Vaughan with ale, “Mamma is always gentle not like Nurse, who pinches me.”
“What did you say?” Pennington asked his quiet tone at odds with the outraged expression in his eyes.
Arthur stared down at the table.
The wrinkles on Pennington’s face deepened. “Castleton, I expect you to answer me when I address you,” he reprimanded Arthur, his unusual severity with his heir emphasised by addressing him by his title.
“Mamma is kind but my nurse is unkind. She won’t let me drink from my silver mug.” He scowled. “She said it is too good for a naughty boy, and I didn’t like it when she pinched my cheeks.”
“How dare she!” Pennington exclaimed, his cheeks puce beneath the light layer of rouge. “Lady Castleton, I shall dismiss Bessie Cooper without a reference. My grandson’s pluck to the backbone. I will not allow him to be turned into a coward afraid of his own shadow. Damn the woman.”
Mister Rivers murmured an almost inaudible protest on the subject of not swearing in a lady’s presence.
The earl ignored his chaplain’s timid objection.
Harriet frowned. The pleasant young nurse did not deserve such treatment. She reached out her hand to smooth the tumble of curls back from her son’s forehead. “Look at me, and tell the truth. Did Bessie pinch you hard?”
She hoped Arthur still knew better than to lie to her.
Harriet looked at the earl. “I don’t think there is any need for concern. Children need discipline if they are not to turn into young tyrants. Perhaps you judge too quickly, Papa. Is there really any need to dismiss Nurse?”
Pennington, whom she knew rode roughshod over any opinion, which did not concur with his own, did not answer her.
An uneasy silence, other than instructions to the footmen to serve them with eggs, ham, kidneys, rolls or toast, followed until Arthur broke it.
“Grandpapa,” he said, while he pushed a piece of ham around his plate with his fork, “after breakfast I want to swim in the lake.”
The earl swallowed a mouthful of buttered toast. “You are too young.”
Arthur’s cheeks reddened.
Harriet frowned. “Eat your breakfast, Arthur, and don’t speak without permission.”
“Be good enough to allow the boy to do so,” Pennington intervened.
Yet again, although he interfered, she forced herself to remain silent in an attempt to seem compliant and keep him in a good humour.
Arthur pouted. “I want to go swimming, Grandpapa.”
“No, the lake is too dangerous. You might sink underwater and be caught in the weeds.”
Arthur drummed his heels against the chair rails. “Grandpapa, you said I may have anything I want.”
The earl’s plucked eyebrows drew together. “I did not mean you may always please yourself.”
Harriet wanted to cheer. For the first time, her father-in-law thwarted Arthur’s wishes.
Her son grabbed his solid silver fork and hurled it at his grandfather. “I will go swimming, I will, I will, I
will,” he screamed, pounding his small fists on the table.
Horrified, Harriet stood. “Apologise to your grandfather.”
“I am ashamed of you. Get up. I shall take you to the nursery where you will stay until you apologise to your grandfather.”
“Shan’t get up, Mamma. Shan’t say sorry. My clothes are too hot. I shall go swimming in nice, cold water.”
On such a warm day, even if Arthur’s skeleton suit, with trouser buttons fastened to a shirt beneath a short-waisted jacket, was unbearably hot, it was not an excuse for ill manners. Harriet pulled back Arthur’s chair and turned it around.
“Don’t interfere, Lady Castleton,” Pennington ordered her. “I admire my grandson’s strength of mind.”
Interfere! How dare he say that, to me?” Papa, please remember that in spite of Arthur’s … er …in your own words, ‘strength of mind’, he should not be rude.” She spoke softly in an attempt to appease him.
Without undue force, Harriet seized her son’s upper arms to raise him to his feet. When she managed to haul him out of his chair, she released him.”Look at me,” she ordered. Instead, Arthur sank to the floor and drummed his heels on the flagtones.
Harriet noticed Mister Rivers appalled expression, and heard him murmur something which concerned sparing the rod and spoiling the child. She glanced disapprovingly at him, for she never smacked Arthur and would never beat him.
Pennington, not a hair out of place in spite of his early morning ride, stood. “Arthur, I shall employ someone to teach you to swim, until then, you may not bathe in the lake.” He walked around the table. “Now get up and behave like a gentleman.”
Her son quietened. His delightful smile appeared. He sat and wiped the tears from his face with the back of his hands. “Thank you, Grandpapa.”
Infuriated, Harriet stood still. “To the nursery, Arthur.” She took deep breaths to calm herself.
“But I am hungry.”
“That is your misfortune. In future, unless you promise to behave, you will have your breakfast in the nursery. “She rarely spoke so firmly. When she did, Arthur knew better than to argue.
“My dear child, I must protest-” the earl commenced.
“Please excuse me, Papa. I fear Arthur has a fever after such shocking histornics.”
Pennington inclined his head towards her. “You may withdraw.
“Thank you.” Without a backward glance at either her father-in-law, Mister Rivers or Mister Vaughan, Arthur’s hand in hers, she marched him out of the breakfast parlour.
Satisfied that she had acquitted herself well, Harriet pressed her lips into a firm line. Pennington would ruin her son if she did not find a way to escape from their dependancy on him.
* * *
Displeased with his daughter-in-law, Pennington looked at the arched door, which a footman closed after she left the breakfast parlour with Arthur. Although his grandson should not have thrown a fork at him, Lady Castleton should appreciate that when the boy knew what he wanted he went after it with admirable, single-minded determination so like his own. Well, at least his son’s widow deferred to him. Furthermore, she seemed grateful for her maintenance.
In his opinion ladies should be dutiful and obedient. Their families expected them to marry well, defer to their husbands, organise their households, participate in society and amuse themselves with feminine pursuits. Lady Castleton should obey him without either argument or reluctance. Whatever the cost, regardless of the circumstances, he would not allow Edgar’s widow to interfere with Arthur’s upbringing.
Not for the first time, Pennington asked himself why his son married a woman of unequal birth without a dowry. Oh, he supposed, her charm would appeal to some men, for although she was only some five foot two inches in height, she kept her back straight and moved gracefully. After a moment or two’s thought, he conceded she had some good features – thick brown hair, bright blue eyes, which Arthur inherited from her, besides a good complexion. Yet, he concluded, she was not remarkable.
Thoughtful, he kept himself well in hand while he finished his breakfast. As for the nurse, his grandson was not a common boy. How dare she pinch Arthur’s soft round cheeks. What was more, she did not have the right to withhold his silver mug from him. Well, it would be ungentlemanly to chastise the child’s mother for her protest when he had announced his decision to dismiss Bessie Cooper. His daughter-in-law’s objection would not alter his decision.
Unruffled, he ate the last morsel of kidney, dabbed his mouth with a monogrammed napkin and stood with no more effort than a young man. At the age of sixty he prided himself on his slim figure, which, unlike so many of his contemporaries, did not require stays. Congratulating himself on his own elegant appearance, he shuddered at the thought of the Prince Regent’s corpulence.
Dominic Markham watched his elegant mother leave the dining room, followed by Gwenifer, his widowed sister, who kept house for him.
“Well, my boy,” began his father, who sat opposite him at the table, “when you arrived, I was pleased to see you and your sister looking so well.”
“And I am glad to see you in good health,” Dominic replied. Indeed, his father, Joshua Markham, Earl of Faucon. was in fine fettle for a sixty-eight year old man.
“Left your curate in charge, while you visit us?”
“How long can you stay? Your mother hopes you can spare us a few days.” Joshua sipped his port. To judge by his silence, before he spoke again, it seemed something pressed on his mind. “Several families you might wish to become reacquainted with have left London and come to Herfordshire for the summer months. Unfortunately, they include the Earl of Pennington, whom I would not choose for a neighbour. By the way, the latest news in the area is of his daughter-in-law, Lady Castleton, and her son – what-is-his name? – ah, yes, Arthur, of whom little is known. They are living with the earl? Your mother has decided we must call on them,” he ended, with a note of disapproval in his voice.
Dominic knew his parent well enough to sense Pennington and his family were not the matter uppermost in his father’s mind. “I can stay until Saturday when I shall return to my parish to deliver my sermon on Sunday.”
“Good.” The earl cleared his throat. “I must speak to you concerning a painful matter.”
Dominic sat a little straighter. “I hope gossip apropos my ill-doings has not come to your ears,” he teased, in an attempt to lighten his father’s mood.
“No such thing, my boy. As befits a gentleman in holy orders, so far as I know your behaviour is irreproachable, and your good reputation is intact.” Joshua reached out for the silver bowl of nuts on the highly polished surface of the mahogany table. “Delicate matter to discuss.” He helped himself to a walnut. “However much I wish your brothers survived, we must face facts.”
“Yes, I know,” Dominic agreed, in a subdued tone of voice.
After so many years, he wished he could help his father come to terms with grief. Yet, although he was a thirty year-old rector, it seemed futile to remind Papa The Lord giveth. The Lord taketh. Blessed is the name of The Lord.
Joshua passed a hand across his eyes. “If only Denzil had not died in the Peninsular, and Pascoe at the Battle of Trafalgar, I would not have a conversation with you in which we must face the truth”
The truth? Dominic sat a little staighter. So many fine men, including his brothers, had sacrificed their lives when they fought against France to preserve the Rule of Law. What more was there for his father to say on the subject?
Joshua sipped some wine before he spoke. “Painful although it is, I must speak out. You already know that after twenty years of childless marriage your older brother and his milk-and-water wife are estranged.”
Dominic opened his mouth to reply. Joshua shook his head to silence him and continued. “There is no possibility of them presenting me and your mother with a grandson.”
After Joshua refilled his glass he slid the decanter across the table.
Dominic poured wine into his crytstal glass, sensing worse would come. If only his ancestors, whose portraits hung on walls papered in rich red, could fend off the verbal axe, which he knew hovered over his neck. “Is there no hope of my brother and sister-in-law being reconciled?”
“Even if they put their troubled past behind them, it would be useless. There is no way to soften this news, although, I daresay a clergyman can bear it better than most men. Robert’s health has deteriorated. I am sorry to tell you that, at the most, he has no more than a year to live.” Joshua’s hand shook. A few drops of blood-red port fell onto the table.
Did the doctor apply loathesome leeches to Robert? Dominic quaked at the thought. My older brother whom I always admired is on the verge of death! He reeled from the blow of the imaginary axe. “Are you sure, Papa, I knew Robert was ill but did not imagine his condition is fatal. What is the cause of his malady?”
“Loose living,” Joshua explained, his voice bitter. “Don’t plague me for details, I cannot bear to speak of them.” He gulped his port as though it were a lifeline.
“Surely a cure can be found,” Dominic protested, while he struggled to come to terms with the news.
Elbows on the table, Joshua propped his head on his hands. “The best doctors and physicians have been consulted. They all say Robert’s case is hopeless. That is why I sent for you.” His eyes suspiciously moist, Joshua drank more port.
The youngest son of the family, Dominic had never imagined wearing a coronet and robes of state. He had neither been trained to become the future Earl of Faucon nor to accept the responsibilities it would entail. Faced with the prospect, he did not know if he was capable of the challenges that would arise. “I might predecease both of you,” he murmured, unable to visualise himself taking a seat in The House of Lords.
Very much the aristocrat in his blue morning coat, primrose yellow waistcoat, perfectly arranged cravat, pale pantaloons and black shoes, Joshua held up an admonitory hand. “I have nearly reached my allotted lifespan of three score years and ten. Before my seventieth birthday I hope you will have married and presented me with a grandson.”
Dominic studied the vivid colours of the Aubusson carpet’s hexagonal pattern. Although he could neither condone nor understand the reason for the plunge into degradation, which brought his eldest brother so low, he sympathised with him. Poor Robert entered into a disastrous arranged marriage, which drove him to take ever-increasing consolation in alcohol and opera dancers. Indeed, last time he saw him, Robert looked much older than his forty-two years, and suffered cruelly from gout besides being liverish.
“Dominic.” Again Joshua’s voice broke into his thoughts. “It is your duty to father the future Earl of Faucon. Unless you have a suitable bride in mind, your Mamma will introduce you to eligible young ladies.”
Dominic understood why his father emphasised the word ‘suitable.’ His future wife must be a flawless diamond. Nevertheless, he would not enter an arranged marriage, which might prove as disastrous as Robert’s.
His poor brother! He should offer him consolation. “My lord, I must visit, Robert.” He used his father’s formal term of address to stress his determination.
Joshua shook his head. Tears rolled down his cheeks. “He refuses to see any of the family. I think it is because he is either too ashamed of his folly, or because he does not want our pity.”
“I must see him,” Dominic repeated, tactfully pretending he had not noticed his father’s tears. “Maybe he will recover.” He clutched at an unlikely straw. “There might be a miracle.” He suppressed his grief. Shocking enough to see his proud father succumb to anguish without adding his own.
* * *
Three days after he left Faucon House, Dominic sat at his desk in the spacious library in the rectory at Queen’s Langley in Hertfordshire. He dipped his goose quill into the ink pot. After a moment’s thought, he added a few lines to his sermon, on the subject of “It Is Better to Give than Receive”, in elegant copperplate handwriting. He would deliver it on Sunday from the pulpit of the Church of Saint Michael and All Saints.
He tried to concentrate and failed. The prospect of an arranged marriage did not appeal to him. Only once, soon after he graduated from Oxford, had he fallen in love. It came to nought. Afterwards, depite the lures cast at him, no other lady ever tempted him to exchange his single status with matrimony. He repressed a smile at the thought of young ladies, who pursued him. Even when chaperoned by their mothers, they tried to find an opportunity to be alone with him.
Dominic knew females admired his good looks, which he placed little importance on. He also knew their parents would not reject a suitor with an income from three parishes, who had also inherited several legacies from relatives. On the marriage market, he was considered ‘a good catch’. The question was, did he want to be caught? No, he did not, but regrettably love for his father and duty to his family demanded the sacrifice of his comfortable bachelor existance..
His thoughts returned to the sermon. What should he write next? He put his quill down.
While Dominic sipped a glass of home brewed birch wine, to which he was partial, he stared at the vista of his well-kept garden in front of the rectory, on the border of the road to the village. Where was Robert? If only he could bring him here to be nursed in the peace and quiet of the country. On warm summer days, Robert could sit outside and, maybe, recover his health.
Mrs Cooper opened the garden gate. What did she want? A word with Gwenifer? He wrote another line of his sermon.
Several minutes later, his dark-haired, dark-eyed sister, still as pretty at twenty-seven as she was when she married at the age of twenty, bustled into the room. “Mrs Cooper begs for a word with you.”
“Do you know why?”
“No, when I questioned her she shook her head, and refused to confide in me. She insists the matter is only for your ears.” She shrugged. “I must warn you she is tearful.”
“I hope I can help her. Please ask Lottie to show her in,” he requested Gwenifer was always aware of his duty to care for his flock, although women’s tears made him uncomfortable, even when they aroused his compassion.
At the time of his ordination, with three older brothers, it had seemed unlikely he would ever become head of the Faucon family. So, although he did not have a divine calling, he accepted the career and provisions his father made for him, and entered holy orders.
A clergyman could not participate in every pleasure available to members of the ton. Nevertheless, he enjoyed spring in his parish of Rivenden, which was near enough to the capital city to be advantageous during the London Season, the summer in Queen’s Langley, and autumn in his third parish where he joined the hunt.
Lottie opened the door, bobbed a curtsey and stood aside to allow the visitor to enter the library.
“Mrs Cooper,” Dominic greeted the middle-aged woman dressed in an old-fashioned brown gown.
From the doorway, she curtsied. “Mister Markham, I’m sorry for coming to see you.” She sniffed loudly. “I don’t know anyone else who might be able to help.”
Dominic indicated one of a pair of chairs, upholstered in faded green brocade.
Mrs Cooper looked down at her sturdy brown leather boots. “I don’t want to dirty your fine carpet.”
“How thoughtful of you. Don’t worry, a little dust from the lane will do no harm. Seat yourself opposite my desk, and tell me what your problem is.”
She perched on the edge of a chair. “It’s my daughter, Bessie. Wicked he is, and she’s a God fearing girl.”
Dominic rested his elbows on the desk, and made a steeple with his fingers on which he propped his chin. He supposed Bessie, a rosy cheeked young woman, was with child. Presumably, Mrs Cooper wanted him to persusade the seducer to marry her daughter. “Who is wicked?”
His parishoner withdrew a large cotton handkerchief from her pocket. She dabbed her eyes and blew her nose before she answered his question. “His lordship.”
Surely Mrs Cooper was not so naïve that she believed a member of the aristocracy would marry a country girl. For whom did Bessie work? He searched his memory and recalled the name of her employer. “A relative of Lord Beringford?” he asked.
“No, sir, she worked for him until his youngest son left the nursery. Next she worked for Lord and Lady Woolsey. Recently, the Earl of Pennington employed her to look after his grandson.”
Dominic frowned, aware of unpleasant rumours, which circulated with reference to the so called gentleman. One of them even hinted there was little Pennington would not have done to father a son, who would become his heir instead of his nephew. His frown deepened. Surely, even Pennington would not want to try to father the next in line to an earldom on a servant, whom he would marry if she became pregnant. He sighed. “I think the best we can do for your daughter’s child is to persuade the earl to provide for it.”
Mrs Cooper’s eyes opened wide. “I am shocked to the bone, sir! My Bessie is a good Christian girl. Surely you don’t think she would….would-” flustered, she broke off, colour flooding into her weatherbeaten cheeks.
Somewhat embarrassed by his assumption that Bessie was increasing, he looked at Mrs Cooper. “I beg your pardon for for my false assumption. Please explain your daughter’s problem.”
“I hardly know where to begin, Mister Markham. My poor girl’s in jail in St. Albans. She’s accused of theft. I swear it’s not true, sir, I know it isn’t. Bessie’s honest. Even if she were starving, which she’s never been because I’ve always laid a table with good food, she’d never steal even a crumb of bread not rightfully hers.” At the end of this somewhat muddled sentence, she sniffed several times, her workworn hands clasped tightly together on her lap.
“Did the Earl of Pennington accuse her?”
Mrs Cooper nodded, seeming too overcome by Bessie’s dreadful circumstance to speak.
“What is the charge?”
“The charge? Oh, do you mean what did he say she’s taken, sir?”
“Well, it was like this. The earl’s only got one grandson whom Bessie told me he dotes on and spoils. She wasn’t allowed to punish him even if he was rude and disobedient.” Mrs Cooper leaned forward. “I tell you, Mister Markham, if any of my sons ever spoke as Lord Castleton did to Bessie, after the sting of their father’s cane, they would have been rubbing their backsides.”
Dominic held up his hand in an attempt to halt the aggrieved housewife’s flow of words. She ignored the gesture.
“Well sir, one day, after Bessie told the boy to drink all his milk, he threw his silver mug at her. To punish him, Bessie explained the mug was too good for him and put it away. The nasty little boy complained to his grandfather,” she spluttered. “What’s more, if any of one our sons ever threw a mug of milk at anyone Mister Cooper would have thrashed him.”
Thoughtful, Dominic gazed at her, grateful because his father never applied the rod while he, his brothers and sisters grew up. Indeed Papa never allowed anyone else to do so, although he had his own means of punishment. The worst were gentle reproaches and expressions of disappointment concerning the culprit’s lack of conduct. On such occasions Dominic’s guilt induced him to wish the floor would open and swallow him up. Anything would have been preferable to being the cause of his dear father’s displeasure.
Mrs Cooper broke into his thoughts. “My poor girl’s in a cell with criminals and women, who are…are no better than they should be.”
“Lord Castleton’s father is dead, is he not?” Dominic asked.
“Yes, sir.” Her cheeks reddened. “If he weren’t been killed by Boney’s soldier, I hope he would never have allowed his son to become a young limb of satan.”
‘Young limb of satan’! Too strong a term for a child, who lacked discipline. “What of the child’s mother, Mrs Cooper.”
She shook her head. “Bessie says she is a sweet lady, but every time she tells the boy to behave the earl pokes his long nose in where it’s not welcome. So the child thinks he can do whatever he pleases.”
“I see. Now, please tell me if I am wrong,” Dominic fought his way through the real meaning of his parishoner’s distressed floods of words. “Lord Castleton claimed Bessie would not allow him to drink out of his silver mug.”
“Where did Bessie put the mug?” he asked, not immune to the plea in her tear-filled hazel eyes.
“In the cupboard in the nursery along with the child’s silver porringer, his knife, fork and spoon, and I don’t know what else.”
“So, where is it? Why does the earl think she stole it and not the other silver items? If Bessie were a thief, surely she would have taken all of them.”
“I only know, sir, that four days ago, after she ate breakfast in the servants’ hall, the old limb of satan was waiting for her when she returned to the nursery. She says the earl was in a fair taking. He ranted at her for pinching his grandson’s cheeks. Then he ordered her to fetch the mug. She couldn’t find it, so he accused her of stealing it.”
Dominic frowned. “Surely she was not the only one who could have taken it.”
“Yes, that’s true, Mister Markham. Bessie says the earl lost his temper when she tried to explain. Please, sir, speak to his lordship. He’ll listen to you.” Mrs Cooper burst into noisy tears and covered her face with her hands.
Of course, he must do whatever he could to help the Coopers. Nevertheless, Dominic doubted the eccentric earl would yield to any representation he could make on Bessie’s behalf.