Authors: Joan Smith
Tags: #Regency Romance
If I were rich, I would never mend another stitch in my life. I would lie in bed till ten in the mornings, eat strawberries all summer long, have seven gowns with blonde lace, a different colour for every day of the week, and a sable-lined cape for winter. But I am not, so I shall hurry and get Edward’s shirt patched up in time to give my aunt some help with peeling the turnips for dinner.
Strawberries have a way of turning into turnips here at Ambledown, and blonde lace into well-worn muslin. Still, we are rich in the things that matter: history, health, memories, and dreams. Especially dreams. You never crave a thing with the same gusto once it is actually attainable. And if you
have a thing whether you want it or no, you develop a lively distaste for it. Which brings us to Tom Carrick, though I should not perhaps call him an “it.”
He is my suitor. He came to call last night and declared himself—made a formal offer of marriage, which I am graciously and reluctantly considering as I sit in the hot sun, mending my brother’s shirt and dreaming of strawberries.
I say it is primarily my brother Edward’s fault that I am in this pickle. If he were a normal brother, he would have taken Ambledown in hand when Papa died and made us a good living from it. He was at Oxford at the time, however, which is how
fell into the temporary role of estate manageress. When he came down two years later, a graduate, he was much too well educated to know anything practical, having turned poet instead. Our fortunes declined apace.
The Barwicks, once the second most influential family in the neighbourhood, outpaced only by the Gambles at Carnforth Hall, fell into obscurity. A Barwick ancestor sat in Parliament for Westmoreland as long ago as the fourteenth century. Another fought the Scots at Flodden Fields in 1513, bringing glory to the name. The original farm house, squat, plain, and square, had been grandified into a mansion by a Tudor Barwick in the late sixteenth century. In fact, we have still intact on the premises a pele-tower, used as a look-out post against invaders some four hundred years ago. We use it to store old lumber, with a bachelor farm hand having his quarters on the second story.
Poetry is at the bottom of all our misfortunes. I knew virtually nothing of sheep farming when I took over, whereas Edward had worked with Papa, it always being understood he would take over the place one day. Instead he took into his head to go dragging over to Rydal Mount, where Mr. Wordsworth has set up a colony of rhymesters, to spend his afternoons at the master’s feet. At night, he sits cudgelling his brain over sonnets, while I am left to juggle pounds and pence in the never-ending battle to keep a roof over our heads. All this is bad enough, but on top of it, he has lately begun talking of marriage to a perfectly ineligible lady, with not so much as a sou to her name. Of course, she is wildly romantical, her life fraught with unsolvable problems. She shares (or pretends to share) his infatuation with poetry. I do not actually know any perfectly sane, normal people who
read poetry, when I stop to consider it. Perhaps it is an aberration, like gambling.
I first came to suspect this passion was simmering when Lady Emily began calling on me this past spring. We are neighbours, she living at Carnforth Hall a few miles away, but as she is not far from a decade younger than myself, we were never what one could call real friends. Her papa is a top-lofty earl, who seldom showed his nose in the district for more than a few months a year until he became old and ill. We saw little of Lady Emily until Edward let his curls grow long, took to wearing a Belcher kerchief at his neck and scrambling over the fells like a sheep. All this was done to honour his Muse, you understand. Such antics invoked some of our neighbours to ridicule, some to pity. Lady Emily thinks him a positive charm.
Her first pretext for calling on us was to deliver a basket of sour little green oranges, which she informed us would be ideal for making spice balls but ‘were a little sour for eating’. She need hardly have told us. She was not long in the saloon before she began asking after Edward. She had to make two more calls before she “accidentally” caught him in one morning. It was an overcast day, making fell climbing and riding to Rydal Mount ineligible. We were honoured with a green goose and a sack of spongey apples on those two occasions. Aunt Nora was urging the friendship on me as a great thing for the family’s lagging dignity. It quite called her back to old times, this running tame of Carnforth’s daughter under our roof. Nora Whitmore is my late father’s widowed sister, who has stayed with us for nearly as long as I can remember. She is not so romantical as Edward but is not untainted either in that respect. She reads and praises all his stuff; she does not, to my knowledge, write it.
“I think you should return Lady Emily’s visit, Chloe,” she told me, with a vigorous nod of her head but without looking at me. I can hardly remember the last time she looked right at me. She is always netting, you see. It is her pride, her passion, one might almost say her life. Her blue rattan netting box is always by her side, her fingers moving with the speed and precision of long practice over her mesh. “She will never come back a fourth time if you do not return her call. It is only common courtesy to do so. We ought to have done it before now.”
“She never stays home a day to receive us,” I pointed out, for the visits came hard on the heels one of the other. “I have better things to do with my time.”
Raising sheep is not a matter of gathering the herd once a year for clipping and sitting back and counting your money the rest of the time, as an outsider might think. It seems they are constantly being gathered—for lambing, clipping, dipping, breeding, selling, and so on. Arrangements must be made for all these matters, and of course there was the home farm to see to as well. My time was occupied pretty fully.
“It seems to me she has Edward in her eye, coming here so often. It would be a very good thing for him.”
Unaware at the time of Lady Emily’s dowerless state, I was inclined to agree. One had no reason to suppose Lord Carnforth’s daughter would be portionless, even if the Hall was falling apart. We around the neighbourhood generally blamed its state on his advancing years and disinterest, rather than on penury.
“Perhaps you’re right,” I said. “We’ll go tomorrow, shall we, Auntie? We’ll go early and beat her coming to us.”
Despite her eagerness, Aunt Nora’s reply must wait till she had drawn the mesh out of her netting and inserted it to begin a new row. “Excellent,” she agreed then, without lifting her eyes. “We will be able to judge by Carnforth’s reaction how he feels about it. If this spate of visits has not his approval, they must stop. I cannot think Lady Emily is the sort of girl to be sneaking off behind her papa’s back. He must know what she is about.”
I believe Nora changed her mind when she went to the Hall. It would surprise me very much if Lord Carnforth even remembered he had a daughter, much less knew or cared what she did with her time. In short, he was three sheets to the wind when we arrived, and it was a morning call we paid.
“Who’s there? Who’s banging on the demmed door?” he bellowed, from some room beyond our view.
A servant wearing threadbare and spotty livery admitted us.
“His lordship is h’indisposed,” he told us grandly, in that haughty manner of the aristocracy’s servants. “Is it her ladyship you’ve come to see?”
My own first thought was to escape the place at top speed. I had never seen such filth and confusion. There was dust and dirt everywhere. The windows were gray, the hangings limp and yellowed. Sofas sagged and silver tarnished to a greenish-black iridescence amidst a welter of papers and debris on table tops. There was even a pair of boots sitting on the table in the saloon. Certainly Lady Emily could not personally be expected to keep so large a place clean, but if she were any manager at all, it seemed to me she could have harried the servants into doing better than this. We are not rich at Ambledown either, but there is no dust on the furnishings.
“If you please,” Nora answered firmly and strode to a sofa, carefully lifting her skirts about her ankles.
Lady Emily was soon with us, smiling serenely. She looked like a beautiful pink rose that had somehow bloomed in a dust bin. Emily has hair that is nearly golden, just a shade darker, and she has blue eyes. Her colour is high, not washed out like some blondes. She happened to be wearing a pink gown, not the most felicitous colour for her complexion in my view, but reinforcing the floral likeness. She seemed totally unaware of her surroundings. “How nice of you to call,” she said, beaming with pleasure. “Does Papa know you are here?”
“Your father is—indisposed, the butler tells us,” I replied, feeling embarrassed for her.
“I daresay he did not sleep well last night,” she said blandly. The girl was either an actress or incredibly naive. “Pray have a seat. I shall call for some tea.”
We sat gingerly on a musty sofa while Lady Emily pulled vainly on a bell cord, which I am quite convinced connected to no bell anywhere. In any case, no servant ever came to bring tea, a fact that soon fell from her mind (but not, alas, from mine; I was thirsty for a cup.) It was the strangest visit I have ever endured, and I have lived through some odd ones at the homes of our local eccentrics.
Lady Emily was a charming hostess, asking for all our family and the more important domestics and discussing parish affairs, just as though her father were not bellowing out an obscene song at the top of his lungs in the next chamber. She ignored him, which I found rather difficult to do. She likewise ignored the missing tea tray, the squalor all around her, and the little hobgoblin of a man in a hideous brown jacket who darted to and fro in the saloon, making an inventory of all the rubbish.
At length, I could contain my curiosity no longer. “Is your father having an inventory made?” I asked.
“No, it is a bailiff, Miss Barwick,” she told me, smiling politely. “We have the bailiffs in the house, for nonpayment of bills. They will take some things that are not entailed and sell them, I believe. Do you plan to attend the assembly this month?”
“I never attend the assemblies, Lady Emily,” I told her.
“I’m sure Edward would be happy to take you,” she went on, making it pretty clear why she was interested in
attending. “Mr. Carrick was saying only last Sunday after church that he is forever trying to coax you to attend.”
I could not like to say Mr. Carrick was the reason I stayed away, but he was. Since he had bought up an estate on the other side of the mere two years before, he had taken into his head he was in love with me and hounded me so mercilessly that I avoided any occasions that would throw him in my way.
“I gave all that sort of thing up a few years ago,” I said vaguely, implying it was my advanced years that accounted for it, though I had not considered myself a spinster by any means when Carrick landed in town. Not quite firmly nailed to the shelf at the time—a little more firmly attached to it since then.
“Edward will hardly go alone,” she added, with an artless look.
Aunt Nora unfolded a clean handkerchief and pulled out her netting, placing the woolens on the linen to prevent soiling. This uncouth act went unnoticed by our hostess. “Are you making a shawl, Mrs. Whitmore?” she asked.
Nora admitted it to be the case, then began a series of ingenious questions, each seemingly pointless by itself, which joined together to amount to a third degree of financial affairs at Carnforth Hall. Within a half hour we had learned that old Lord Carnforth was rapidly drinking himself into his grave and was virtually bankrupt, with the estate mortgaged to the hilt. Lady Emily without a penny of dowry, and the heir to it all, Cousin John Gamble, off somewhere in India, unaware surely of the way his inheritance was being sluiced down the drain.
“Should Mr. Gamble not be sent for, notified how matters stand here at home?” Nora suggested.
“Papa is convinced he would not care,” was the uninterested reply.
“He has been in India for quite fifteen years now, you must know. It was thought when he went that Cousin Wilbur Gamble would inherit, as Papa has no sons, but Cousin Wilbur was drowned, and it is Uncle John’s son who will come into the title.” I found it significant she did not add “and estates”. I suspect the latter would fall into that domain where bankrupt estates go.
“You never mean Black Jack Gamble is to be the heir?” Aunt Nora demanded, with a startled expression on her face.
“Why yes, that is what Papa called him,” Emily admitted. “But he is not really a black man. It is his hair, I think ...”
“Oh, well in that case, it is no difference whether the estate is lost now or later,” Nora said, in a fatalistic, resigned sort of a way. She was soon winding up her woolens, stuffing them back into their blue box, and thanking Lady Emily for the visit, there having been no tea for which to render thanks.