In 1816, Mrs Bettismore lies on her deathbed. Her twenty-year old granddaughter, Amelia is distraught by the imminent loss of her only relative, who has raised her in an atmosphere of seclusion and unyielding discipline.
Amelia inherits her grandmother’s fortune, but after such a sheltered upbringing she finds herself lost and alone. Her emotional growth, stunted by Mrs Bettismore she is afraid to do or say anything of which her grandmother would disapprove.
The heiress is unprepared for her introduction to Saunton, her guardian’s noisy household and his family of irrepressible sisters.
Will this cause Amelia to retreat into herself even more, or will a home filled with love and high spirits change her outlook and encourage her to find love?
Or do the long-hidden secrets of her birth threaten to spoil everything?
“I like the way Mrs Bettismore’s strong personality weaved throughout the novel, providing conflict. Like Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, even dead, she’s a great character.”
Katherine Pym, Author of Erasmus T. Muddiman: A tale of Publick Disorder; Pillars of Avalon (with Jude Pitman) Canadian Brides Book 5, and other historical novels.
October 16, 1816
A fatal tumour in the stomach? Seated in her grandmother’s private parlour, Amelia Carstairs stared at Doctor Cray almost unable to believe his diagnosis. He must be wrong. Grandmamma cannot be dying. She sank deeper into a wing chair upholstered in lemon yellow, one of her beloved grandmother’s favourite colours.
“But, before you examined her, on Doctor Sutton’s instructions she has been bled, blistered and purged, besides drinking seawater with roasted crabs’ eyes, and bathing in the sea, all of which he assured us would cure her.”
Why did those treatments fail? Amelia trembled while she waited for the doctor’s reply.
“Miss Carstairs, it would be cruel not to prepare you for the inevitable.”
Amelia refrained from putting her hands over her ears to block out the dreadful truth. “Whatever it costs there must be something you or someone else can do to save her life.”
“No, there is not.” His face solemn, the silver-haired doctor shook his head. “I am sorry to tell you this sad news. Mrs Bettismore’s life is drawing to an immediate end.”
She shrank back from the sober doctor, death’s messenger, dressed in black. “Is there no hope? Another doctor might be able to save her life.”
“You may consult one if you wish.” Doctor Cray pressed the tips of his fingers together. “Miss Carstairs, in my opinion, the lady has only a few days, perhaps hours left and-”
“Don’t continue! No more, I beg you. I cannot bear it.” An unmarried, twenty-year-old orphan with no other relatives, she could not imagine her future life without her grandmother. She gulped. “There must be something you can do to save her.”
Doctor Cray shook his head. “The only thing I can prescribe is laudanum to ease the pain. I shall return at noon to see how she is.” He picked up his black bag. “Miss Carstairs, try to be brave and accept the inevitable instead of clinging to false hope. The only thing in this world that we may be certain of is that we are born and will die. We cannot overcome fate.” He hesitated. “For Mrs Bettismore’s sake, no matter how distressed you are, be calm in her presence and make sure she is comfortable.”
Alone, Amelia clenched her fists. If she sobbed her eyes and nose would redden and Grandmamma would ask why she had been crying. Unable to sit still she paced around the room until she halted in front of one of a pair of tall windows. She stared out at the bay.
Fierce wind drove rain from a pewter-coloured sky against the glass. Beyond the esplanade, the dark grey sea advanced and retreated to and from the sweep of golden sand where, only yesterday, children made sand pies and castles.
What would she do with no one to care for her and fulfil her every whim? Amelia sank onto the floor. She put her arms around her knees and rested her chin on them. Ever since her entry into polite society, she took pride in her immaculate appearance. Now, what did it matter if her white muslin dress creased? The person, whom she loved more than any of her words could express, would not be with her for much longer was the only significant thing.
Thoughts whirled in her head. Nothing ever persuaded Grandmamma to abandon her wig and old-fashioned gowns. Her grandmother had told one critic. ‘In a small bodice and straight skirts, like some, who should know better, I’d look like a lumpy sack of potatoes’ Rich enough to snap her fingers in people’s faces, Grandmamma cared nothing for ridicule. The daughter of a London merchant, her education merely consisted of reading, writing and arithmetic and learning how to be a prudent housewife. Due to her wealth society tolerated her despite her common speech and manners. Only she appreciated her grandmother’s goodness and piety.
How different her own life would have been if her father were not Oliver Carstairs, younger son of a baron. His marriage to her mother coupled with her grandmother’s fortune opened all but the highest stickler’s doors to her. So, again and again, Grandmamma chaperoned her at Almacks assembly rooms, and high society’s balls and routs even when her corns tortured her and she looked longingly at her bed.
Amelia’s throat ached with the effort of holding back her tears. How could she have been so selfish, thinking only of her appearance and her own pleasure at dances where, after the quadrilles, country dances and waltzes, suppers with every delicacy imaginable were served while Grandmamma suffered?
A knock on the door. Amelia stood and smoothed her gown, Blythe, her grandmother’s dresser, entered. “Mrs Bettismore is asking for you.”
* * *
“Amelia, promise not to grieve when I take my last breath. After so much pain, my old bones will welcome death,” Mrs Bettismore whispered from her large four-poster bed. The heavy scarlet silk curtains embroidered with gold thread shadowed her pallid face. “I look forward to eternal peace with my Maker.”
Amelia squeezed her eyes shut to prevent tears spilling down her cheeks. She could no more accept her grandmother’s words than she could accept Doctor Cray’s. “Grandmamma, please don’t say that. We will consult another doctor who will cure you.”
“My dear child, please accept that I am dying,” Mrs Bettismore said speaking with increasing difficulty. “It’s time for us to be honest. I admit that I’ve failed you.”
“Never! Even when you chastised me, it was for my own good.” From her chair Amelia reached out to clasp her grandmother’s thin hand.
“I apologise for being too strict.” A few tears trickled down her cheeks. “But please believe I’ve loved you since the day you were born, even when I applied the cane if I considered it necessary.”
“Grandmamma, I love you too. Please don’t trouble yourself. There is no need to say more.”
Her grandmother ignored her interruption. “I overindulged you. I should have insisted you marry a gentleman, who would protect you.” Her face a contorted mask of pain, Mrs Bettismore closed her eyes.
“I wish I could do something to ease your suffering.”
The faded blue eyes opened. “So much to explain. So little time left to me. Pay attention, child. You’ll inherit the cotton factory in Lancashire my first husband, Mr Belcher, God rest his soul, bequeathed to me,” she rambled with pauses between each phrase. “Sell it,” she murmured. “Better for you to be a landowner. You’re only accepted by the ton due to my wealth and your paternal grandfather’s rank.”
Even on her death bed Grandmamma concentrated on her property and ambition. “No need to speak of these matters now. You need nourishment. Shall I send for your gruel?”
Mrs Bettismore tried to raise her hand. “No, stop trying to fatten me up like a Christmas goose and listen. After I die don’t allow any of my husbands’ relatives or your future father-in-law to hang onto your coat sleeves.”
Amelia thought of Sir Bartholomew, her maternal grandfather, who bequeathed all his considerable property to Grandmamma, which she did not want to inherit if it meant death. Tears down rolled down her cheeks. She wiped them away.
“Amelia.” Her grandmother struggled to breathe, her pale, sunken cheeks suddenly poppy-red but she managed to whisper. “I loved Mr Bettismore, not my other husbands.”
“Yes, I know. Please be quiet. I don’t want you to exhaust yourself.” She poured a glass of wine then held it to her grandmother’s dry lips. “Sip this.”
With an unexpected burst of strength, Mrs Bettismore pushed the glass aside. The ruby red wine pooled on the gold silk counterpane.
“I’ll send for a maid to change the bed covers.”
“No, don’t fuss, child,” her grandmother said with sudden energy. “There’s more important things than spilt wine. I’ve safeguarded you in my will, and given instructions to my secretary. He’s an honest man. You may trust him.” Her head lolled on the pile of lace-trimmed linen pillows. “There’s something very important I should have told you-” She broke off. Her breath rattled in her throat.
“Grandmamma, what do you want to tell me?” Amelia trembled. She stared into the half-open eyes shining with love. At first, she did not realise they were sightless.
When she understood her grandmother had left her body she covered her face with her hands and sobbed.
On the morning after her grandmother’s death, Amelia Carstairs lay on the goose feather mattress of her tent bed, eyes swollen, her throat raw from crying. Nothing other than her grandmother’s death concerned her.
“You must eat something, Miss,” Blythe said her voice hoarse.
“No, food would choke me,” Amelia replied her eyes shut.
“Mr Leigh sends his condolences and asks if he may consult you.”
“About the arrangements for Madam’s funeral.”
Funeral! A dreadful word. She could not bear the idea of the body being committed to the grave. Until the last two months, when the tumour grew rapidly, sucking the life out of its victim, her grandmother had been so…so active, so exuberant and enthusiastic. Amelia could not tolerate an image of her alone in the cold, dark bowels of the earth for all eternity. Surely not. By now, Grandmamma must be in heaven. Amelia did not want her to be. She needed her here on earth to look after her.
“Miss, if you give him permission Mr Leigh will organise everything.”
A sodden handkerchief clutched in her hand, tears poured down Amelia’s cheeks. She wanted to howl like a wolf she once saw and heard in a menagerie.
A knock on the door. She buried her face in a pillow.
“Come in, Mr Leigh,” Blythe said her voice gruff.
Footsteps clicked on the parquet floor.
“Draw the curtains, Blythe,” the secretary ordered. “Please accept my apology, Miss Carstairs. You have refused to leave your bedchamber so I am forced to intrude.”
Her hands still over her ears, Amelia could not block the sound of his well-modulated voice.
“Miss Carstairs,” he continued, “Mrs Bettismore left specific instructions. I am the executor of her last will and testament. It is my duty to carry them out.”
“Oh, Miss, do sit up and listen to Mr Leigh.”
Amelia did not need to open her eyes to know Blythe spoke. She recognised the determined tone. Unable to face the day she shook her head.
“Yesterday, you didn’t allow me to help you to change into your nightgown,” Blythe said with a hint of irritation in her voice. “Please be sensible, Miss. If you bathe, change into fresh clothes and have breakfast you will feel much better.”
Nothing could raise her spirits.
“For now,” Blythe continued, “I’ll order hot chocolate and bread and butter to be served here.”
Not only did Amelia want to stay in bed forever, the thought of food made her nauseous, but her throat was dry. With a wave of her hand she indicated the jug of lemon barley water on a pier table near her bed. “Give me some, Blythe.”
She pushed her hair back from her face.
“Miss Carstairs.” Mr Leigh bowed.
Amelia sat up. Her nostrils flared. He should not be in her bedchamber. Apart from unimportant footmen, the only male who ever entered it was the doctor on the rare occasions when she had been ill.
Mr Leigh’s steady grey eyes assessed her. “It is my task to obey Mrs Bettismore’s instructions. The first is to summon the gentleman you were once betrothed to.”
Amazed, she stared at him. “Viscount Langley!”
“Not a viscount, his father is dead. He is now Earl of Saunton,” Leigh corrected her.
She stared at the middle-aged gentleman, a picture of propriety in a dark blue coat and buff pantaloons, with not a hair of his head out of place. “Why must you send for him?”
“I am the executor of Mrs Bettismore’s will.”
Amelia shook her head. “No, it is too much to bear. I order you not to send for his lordship.”
She never again wanted to see the earl. After Napoleon escaped from Elba, Langley re-joined the army. A high-handed major, he had told her he expected her to accompany him to Brussels where he would join his regiment. She still shuddered at the memory of Saunton expecting her to follow the drum. Her drink spilled down the front of her crumpled muslin gown.
Mr Leigh exchanged a glance with Blythe. “Miss Carstairs, I am bound to follow your late grandmother’s instructions, so I must summon him.” He turned the silver ring on his index finger around and around. “Last night, Blythe kept vigil over Mrs Bettismore’s body.”
“R…rats, Miss,” Blythe stuttered her face drained of colour, except for her puffy, red eyes.
Those disgusting creatures! Soon after the rat catcher cleared the house of them than more arrived. The full meaning of Blythe’s explanation struck Amelia as hard as a blow. In reponse to her mental picture of the disgusting creatures feeding on her grandmother’s body she almost vomited.
“Today the funeral furnisher I contacted will send two women to wash and dress Madam’s body,” Leigh informed her. “You have no female relatives to keep vigil so I have instructed him to provide women to watch over her until her mortal remains are committed to the grave on Friday.”
“So quickly! Why?”
Mr Leigh looked away from her, obviously reluctant to speak. “It will be painful for you to hear what I am about to say. I assure you it is not something I wish to explain to any delicately nurtured lady. It is necessary to inter Mrs Bettismore before the body decomposes.”
Shocked and sickened she widened her eyes in response to his explanation. “But I need more time to mourn Grandmamma and-” She broke off.
With an effort Amelia forced herself to speak again. “I don’t understand! How can everything be prepared so soon?” Her voice cracked. “The coffin, and… and everything? When old Mrs Wragg died it took eight days for the funeral furnisher to do his work.”
“In winter, the icy cold weather … er … helped to preserve the body.” Mr Leigh took a deep breath. Perhaps he feared her sensibilities would be overcome. “Mrs Bettismore confided in me. She knew the tumour would cause her death. Three months ago, she ordered a lead lined, elm coffin, which is in a store room beneath the house.”
“But she will need a shift,” Amelia protested.
The secretary shook his head. “No, she wished to be buried in the gown she wore when you were presented at court. She said it was her greatest triumph.”
“But when Mrs Wragg died much more needed to be arranged.”
“The funeral furnisher will provide everything necessary.” He cleared his throat. “Mrs Bettismore’s regretted you have no male relative to advise you, which is why she ordered me to summon the earl. For now, I shall leave you in Blythe’s care. Later, we shall discuss your affairs. Before then you should prepare to receive visitors, who will come to offer their condolences.”
A maid carried a tray into the bedroom.
Blythe poured hot chocolate into a gold-rimmed porcelain cup. She picked it up and held it out towards Amelia. “Please drink this and eat some bread and butter, Miss. Afterwards, I suggest you bathe and eat breakfast to give you strength for the day ahead.”
Amelia obeyed the affectionate, but firm, tone of voice she was familiar with childhood. Despite her misery, she accepted it was time to get up and try to get on with her life.
With sympathy, Percy Marriot, the seventh Earl of Saunton’s secretary, glanced at the pile of bills the improvident sixth earl incurred. Loyal to the backbone to his employer, under whose command he served during the final conflict with Napoleon, he despised the late earl who had gambled until he faced bankruptcy.
“My luck must change,” he had cried out seated at a table in Crockford’s where the stakes were always high. “I wager my daughter, Lady Charlotte’s hand in marriage.”
“Shame,” other card players muttered though they would never refuse a stake.
Fate in the form of the young Duke of Midland’s intervention had spared the lady.
Fortunately, an illness, which caused his hands to tremble too much to bet on the turn of a card, prevented the late earl losing Longwood Place, his family’s ancestral home.
Percy admired his patron. On the verge of going to Belgium to join his regiment, Saunton arranged for the sale of his family’s heirlooms at Christie’s. Combined with his winning the lottery after the battle at Waterloo it saved Longwood for posterity.
“Although I gave orders not to be disturbed, am I so formidable that you must hover nervously by my desk instead of speaking?” Saunton asked, his voice mild.
“If it is not too much trouble, please explain why you have joined me in the library.”
The earl’s imperious dark eyes, set in a face weathered by years in the Iberian Peninsula fighting the French, might have intimidated someone who did not know him well. Yet even if there were some claims to the contrary, the earl was not top-lofty. Nevertheless, he knew how to stand on his dignity when necessary.
Percy resisted an impulse to salute. “I apologise for disturbing you, sir, but a groom rode post haste from Weymouth to deliver this.” He handed the earl a letter.
Saunton raised an eyebrow. “Do we know anyone who resides there?” he asked facetiously.
Percy wanted to chuckle but managed not to. “The king made the town as popular as the Prince Regent is making Brighton, and Princess Charlotte favours it. To answer you, sir, I daresay we are acquainted with any number of people who are there.”
Saunton looked around the library, where spaces left by the removal of valuable oil paintings revealed the original colour of the faded crimson wall paper patterned with gold. “The question is,” he murmured, “is there anyone whom we wish to know in Weymouth?” A wicked gleam in his eyes, he grinned. “I hope my mother has not left Margate and gone there with my sisters.”
Percy picked up a silver letter opener and held it out towards the earl.
“Ah, you are always percipient. I should read this.” Saunton turned the missive over. “I am intrigued. Who could it be from?”
“May I suggest you open it?” Percy asked, aware of the necessity of scrutinising bills that arrived with monotonous regularity since the sixth earl’s demise over a year ago. The task bored his employer, who always refused his offers to deal with them and relieve him from the tedium.
The earl broke the red wax seal.
The letter was from an old-fashioned person who preferred dripping red candle wax onto folded paper to modern wafers.
His lordship’s slanted eyebrows drew together across his forehead.
“Hell and damnation!” Saunton threw the letter down onto a neat pile of unpaid bills.
“Sir?” Percy knew better than to either reveal his surprise or comment on the rare occasions when the earl was out of countenance.
“Send the messenger to the library.”
* * *
Amused by the groom’s flamboyant peacock-blue and green livery laced with gold, Saunton regarded him.
“Did your mistress send you here?”
“No, sir, I mean my lord; it’s said Miss Carstairs is in bed crying her eyes out.”
Saunton raised his eyebrows. “Who sent you?”
“Mr Leigh told me to give you this pair of gloves.”
A low whistle escaped Saunton. According to custom, a gift of black gloves, signified death. He looked from the toes of the groom’s mud-splattered boots to his untidy neckcloth. “Who is Mr Leigh?”
“My lord, he served Mrs Bettismore and is now Miss Carstairs secretary. The funeral’s five days from now.”
“So soon! How the deuce has Leigh managed to arrange it so quickly?”
The groom shuffled from one foot to the other. “I don’t know, milord.”
“Thank you for delivering the message. You may go to the kitchen to eat and drink before you return to Weymouth.”
“Thank you, milord.”
His thoughts disordered, Saunton walked to the pier table on which plain glass decanters and glasses stood. Foolish to regret the sale of the crystal and other family heirlooms auctioned at Christie’s. He removed the stopper from a bottle of brandy, poured a glass and drank the fiery liquid with appreciation.
Too restless to return to his chair he paced the bare floorboards. The clicks made by the heels of his black, highly polished shoes irritated him. He stood still. Damn the responsibility thrust on him.
Memory recalled Saunton to the occasion when Amelia Carstairs claimed she needed fresh air. To oblige her he led the acclaimed beauty from the over-heated ballroom onto a balcony. Later she admitted she had pretended to faint. Fooled, he caught her and supported her in his arms. Discovered in the compromising situation by her outraged grandmother and a gaggle of guests Miss Carstairs snared him. On the following day, he proposed marriage to preserve her good name. It did not take long for him to realise the eighteen-year-old’s main interest was her appearance, the latest fashions, and attending all the delights the London Season offered. In his opinion, her head had probably remained as empty as any one of his sisters’ beautiful dolls. And now, damn it-.
Saunton replenished his glass with brandy. Confound it, in her long letter Mrs Bettismore explained she esteemed him because he allowed her granddaughter to end the betrothal.
‘Nothing,’ she wrote, ‘would have persuaded a less noble gentleman to agree to the termination of his betrothal to an heiress, who would inherit a great fortune. In my last will and testament I have appointed you both as my only grandchild’s guardian and one of her trustees. I am confident you will act with utmost good sense and propriety.’
To that burden, Mrs Bettismore added, ‘I hoped to live to see my dear granddaughter married to a gentleman with a faultless reputation equal to yours and, if God willed it, the father of my great-grandchildren. Should you wish to disregard the conventions, tie the knot with my granddaughter while you are still her guardian. To allay gossip if you do so, I have informed her other trustees, Mr Syddon, my attorney, and Mr Armstrong, my banker, of my wish.’
Outrageous! Since Helen Whitley, his closest friend’s sister-in-law, the only lady he ever loved married Captain Dalyrymple, he had never wished to replace her in his affection and he did not wish to do so now. Moreover, two healthy younger brothers meant he did not need to father an heir.
Saunton paced up and down the library. Curse the vulgar Mrs Bettismore, he would not be outwitted by her from beyond the grave. He took several deep breaths to calm himself. Such anger and resentment might have cost him his life on the battlefield. Even now it would not serve him well. He halted in front of the window. Before him stretched the long drive. Absent-minded he noted it needed an additional layer of gravel to suppress weeds.
There were never enough funds to provide for Mamma and his siblings, to restore the house, to overhaul the tenants’ farms, repair the farm labourer’s cottages, and make the home farm productive. To make matters worse he could never turn away an honest man in need of employment. ‘Yet,’ taunted his inner voice, ‘if you married Amelia Carstairs-’ “No!” The word exploded from him. ‘But if you were her husband,’ the silent voice continued, ‘you could solve all your monetary problems and provide your sisters with dowries large enough to ensure they married well’.
Saunton ignored the devious voice. He must travel to Weymouth in the hope of arriving in time to attend Mrs Bettismore’s funeral.
Afterwards, where and with whom would Miss Carstairs reside. It would be unthinkable for a young, unmarried lady to live without the companionship of a gentlewoman.
His mother? Should he ask her to include his ward in her busy household? No, recently freed from obligatory mourning for his father, Mamma would be busy with her plans to present Charlotte at court during the next London season. In the meantime, with five other daughters to care for, he doubted she would welcome Miss Carstairs when she returned to Longwood Place.
So, who could he turn to for advice? Of course, he would ask for help from Mrs Tarrant, the wife of his closest friend with whom he served in the army.