None of the neighbours of Erpingham Hall could remember any other day as disastrous as the one when Sir Paul Erpingham died. True, the Erpinghams had been through a great deal of bad times, but somehow they had always managed. They had never been very rich, but always well-to-do, and had been able to live a comfortable life with their income. Unfortunately, Sir Paul Erpingham had been a bit too fond of good company, gambling and betting. As long as his wife had been alive, there had been some sort of prudence in the household, though even she could not do much to restrain her husband's extravagance. Once Lady Erpingham had died, things had got worse than ever before. No one had been able to make Sir Paul cut down his expenses. He had spent every single shilling he had, and spending money that he had not had was the logical consequence of this. Then he had realised how desperate his financial situation was, and had found no other way out than to go home, lock himself into the library and blow his brains out.
"They say it was a nasty picture when they found him," Mrs. Farley, professional village gossip, whispered to her neighbour while they watched the funeral. She evidently enjoyed herself -- a suicide did not happen every day. In her opinion, Sir Paul should have been buried the old way suicides had been dealt with -- at the crossroads with a stake through his heart. The deceased's family was assembled around the Erpingham family tomb -- as well as Sir Paul's creditors. There were Sir Paul's children -- Lady Woodward, Miss Helena Erpingham, and the two boys, Paul and Frederick. Sir James Woodward was there, of course. He had been one of the people who had tried to advise the deceased, but had been as successful as anyone trying to do that.
"Don't you think he's awfully handsome," Mrs. Farley whispered to her neighbour. "Sir James I mean. But I have heard he is of a rather cruel disposition -- my husband said he beats his dogs for the slightest reasons. Not a man to be trusted, a man who beats his dogs."
The neighbour, a Mrs. Jenkins, agreed. Sir James Woodward was a good-looking man, aged thirty, but though he was well respected in the neighbourhood, no one really liked him. He was not an amiable man. He had married Sir Paul's eldest daughter, Grace, no doubt because she had been the most eligible bride one could have found in the vicinity. She was from a good family, rather pretty, well-bred, and tolerably rich. However, this was about everything nice that could be said about Lady Woodward. Her younger sister, Miss Helena Erpingham, was much more popular among the villagers than Lady Woodward was, even though her dark complexion prevented her from being a beauty. Miss Erpingham was a clever and friendly young woman, and as long as she had been keeping her father's house, there had always been help available for poor parishioners.
It was a touching picture, Mrs. Jenkins thought, the way Miss Erpingham was standing next to her father's coffin, her hands on her brothers' shoulders as if to support them. There was a great deal of affection between the three siblings, one could see that. Fourteen-year-old Paul Erpingham, Sir Paul's eldest son and heir, desperately fought back his tears. Big boys did not cry, not even when their whole world was going to pieces. His younger brother, twelve-year-old Frederick, had no scruples about showing his feelings. He cried openly, and Mrs. Jenkins's heart went out to the poor orphaned boy. He would have to stay with his sister and brother-in-law -- that alone was a reason to pity him.
The guests were finally gone, and Helena Erpingham retired to her room. It had been a long day for all of them, she thought. Her sister and her husband were still seated in the drawing room. Helena could hear their hushed voices, but was not interested in joining them. She knew only too well what their conversation topic would be.
"Once your father's debts are paid, not much will be left for your sister and brothers to live on," Sir James said. "They will be lucky if the house and grounds will still be in their possession."
"How are they to keep the house and grounds without an income?" Lady Woodward asked.
"The best thing will be to find a tenant for the house," Sir James said. "With this money, they can retain the house until your brother is old enough to take over. He will have to find a rich wife to keep him, of course, or make a fortune for himself. That will not be too difficult -- there are plenty of rich factory-owners whose daughters are in search of a titled husband."
"You want my brother to marry a nobody for her money?" Even Lady Woodward's friends had to admit that she was a snob. The thought of her brother marrying some vulgar woman made her hair stand on end.
Sir James shrugged. "Beggars cannot be choosers," he said.
"Where will they stay when this house is let," Lady Woodward asked, leaving aside the unpleasant topic of her brother's marriage.
"Your brothers will not bother us too much," Sir James said. "They will be at school most of the time. I suppose they will only come home during their holidays, and even then something can be arranged. Your sister, however, may become a problem. Honestly, my dear, I do not wish to have your old maid of a sister in my house."
"Helena is not an old maid," Lady Woodward protested. "She is three-and-twenty."
"Three-and-twenty, rather plain, much too outspoken and, if I may remind you, my dear, penniless," Sir James said, coldly. "It will be hard to get rid of her in a decent way."
"Certainly one of your friends..." Lady Woodward began.
Sir James gave an unpleasant laugh. "None of my friends is foolish enough to marry a woman with no fortune at all," he said.
"On the other hand, James, it might be useful to have Helena around," Lady Woodward said. "And whatever you say, she does have her qualities. She might not marry a man of your consequence, of course, but then not every woman can expect to be quite as lucky as I was. Believe me, Helena will not be a problem."
"I hope so," Sir James said sourly. "Otherwise we shall send her to live with her uncle in Savannah. It is about time he takes notice of his family."
Sir Paul Erpingham's younger brother had been a captain in the navy and had married a rich American heiress. Unfortunately, the ties between the brothers had never been really close, and George Erpingham had hardly ever written.
"We shall keep Uncle Erpingham as our last resort," Lady Woodward said. She was looking forward to having her sister with her. Finally there was someone to take over the more unpleasant tasks of housekeeping, while she could concentrate on the representative ones. It would be useful to have Helena around.
Helena was sitting in her room, already dressed for bed, but still writing a letter to her old school friend, Cecilia Harrington, nee Fletcher.
I do hope you will never be in the situation I am in at the moment, but then it is hardly possible. My father has left us quite destitute, and I know what awaits me in Hilmerton Park, should I go there and stay with my sister and Sir James Woodward -- nothing but misery and humiliation. If I could, I would do anything to prevent this, but I know I cannot. For my brothers' sake, I shall have to endure everything. They will need someone to come home to, and my sister is not the person.
I know you will pray for me, dearest Cecy, and you will let me know if you have any advice concerning my further proceedings. I beg your pardon for writing but a short letter today, but it has been a long and exhausting day. I shall make up for the brevity of this letter next time I write.
Helena read the letter once again, sealed it, and then went to her bed. She extinguished the candle and lay back in her pillows. Suddenly, the full impact of her situation dawned on her, and she began to sob. Ever since her father had died, Helena had been forced to hold back her tears -- things had to be done, her brothers had to be comforted, the funeral had to be arranged, the servants needed to be directed -- and no one had helped her. Her sister had sent her an express, eloquently stating how stricken she was, but offering no help at all. Helena had had to get by on her own, until Grace and her awful husband had arrived and taken over -- and Grace had taken all the credit for everything Helena had done.
Helena knew that Sir James Woodward did not like her. It did not surprise her -- it would have surprised her to find out that he cared for anyone but himself. Life with him would be difficult. Helena shivered at the mere thought of it. If there were a way, no matter what....Helena had seriously considered to become a governess, but she knew her sister would never approve of it. Lady Woodward's sister working as a lowly teacher? She would rather see her dead and buried, Helena believed. But there was no other genteel way of making a living, Helena thought. Nothing that would be acceptable to her snobbish sister and her even worse husband. The only thing they would accept was her joining them at Hilmerton Park, and they would not let her forget how very caring and charitable they were.
Tired out with crying, Helena finally fell asleep.
"This is how things are standing at the moment," Mr. Barton, Sir Paul Erpingham's solicitor, said. He had arrived early in the morning and had assembled the family in the drawing room to read Sir Paul's will.
"What does this mean precisely," Paul Erpingham, Sir Paul's eldest son, asked his sister.
"We are bankrupt," Helena said, gloomily.
"I would not exactly use this term," Mr. Barton said, cautiously.
"Which one would you use then, Mr. Barton?" Helena asked. "I do believe bankrupt sums it up pretty well."
"I have a few suggestions to make," Sir James said. Lady Woodward gave her husband a proud look.
"As the heirs' guardian, you have every right to do so," Mr. Barton said.
Sir James explained his plans to them -- to sell as much land as possible, to cover Sir Paul's debts, and to find a tenant for the house and grounds in order to finance their maintenance.
"When Sir Paul is of age, he can take over his estate -- at least what is left of it -- without any debts, and can start building it up again to what it used to be," Sir James finished his speech. Helena had to admit that he had a point, but her heart bled at the thought of having to sell so much of the Erpingham estate -- even if she knew that there was hardly any other way of retaining the house.
"Well said, Sir James," Mr. Barton said. "If I may say so, I was just about to suggest something like this, but of course it is much better if a member of the family has come up with the idea before me. This makes it...more acceptable."
"What about us," Frederick asked. "Where are we going to stay when the house is let?"
"You spend most of your time at school as it is," Sir James said, unimpressed by the urgency in the boy's voice. "It can hardly make a difference to you whether you spend your holidays here or at Hilmerton Park."
It did make a huge difference to Frederick, but he did not say so.
"And Helena?" Paul asked. "Where is she going to stay?"
"At Hilmerton Park, of course," Lady Woodward said, indignantly. "What did you think?"
That, at least, was a comfort, Frederick thought. The prospect of spending his holidays with Sir James and Lady Woodward was not tempting, but if Helena would be there, too, life at Hilmerton Park would be endurable.
"Are there any other suggestions?" Mr. Barton asked, glad that someone else had brought up the unpleasant topic. Nobody answered. "In that case, Sir James, I will start to work on clearing Sir Paul's debts, and finding a tenant for Erpingham Hall -- with your permission, of course."
"Permission granted," Sir James said, with an unpleasant smile. Helena hated the look on his face. He had taken over control, and he seemed to enjoy every bit of it. More than ever she hoped that she would not have to stay with him and her sister for long. But where could she go?
The following weeks passed quickly -- too quickly, for Helena's taste. She was busy arranging everything for their move to Hilmerton Park -- packing her and her brothers' personal belongings, deciding which should go to Hilmerton Park and which should go to Eton, in her brothers' case -- writing letters to their various relations and friends, announcing their new address, making an inventory of the house and its contents for the use of Mr. Barton and the new tenants, and doing all this without any help from Grace, who was busy being the Lady of the House, but did not want anything to do with the actual work.
Helena did not spend much time with her sister and brother-in-law in those days. She was glad to retire to her room shortly after dinner, writing her diary and then going to bed. Helena was too tired every evening to think of anything but sleep. Three weeks after her father's funeral, Helena received a letter from her friend Cecilia. After having expressed her deepest compassion for Helena's current situation, Cecilia Harrington invited Helena to stay with her for a while.
I am certain my husband will be as delighted to have you as our guest as I will be, Cecilia wrote. However, I am afraid that this solution would only be a temporary one, as my husband is planning to go on a journey to Italy in spring. Therefore I am still searching for a better way of keeping you away from your sister's. I suppose a position as a governess is out of the question, for your sister would never approve of it. But how about your becoming a respectable lady's companion? Certainly your sister could not have anything against it -- she could still keep up pretences and say that you were staying with a friend. Do tell me what you think about it. There is an elderly lady in my acquaintance who would be happy to take you in, should you be interested. I must warn you -- Mrs. Montagu is not blessed with the happiest of tempers, to say the least -- but I would be near you to cheer you up, and I am convinced Mrs. Montagu is a good person at heart.
Helena smiled. She did not doubt that Mrs. Montagu was a good person at heart, but nevertheless she did not feel like accepting the offer. Paul and Frederick needed her, and for their sake she had to endure life at Hilmerton Park, no matter how gloomy her prospects were.
After lunch, Helena was in the library with her sister, carefully looking for her and her brothers' favourite books to take them with her.
"Honestly, Helena, I do not see any point in this," Lady Woodward said. "I would be ashamed to leave an incomplete library to my tenants. Besides, it will reduce the value of the property."
"How much money does Sir James intend to make?" Helena asked heatedly, before she could stop herself.
"You are being extremely unfair, do you not think so?" Lady Woodward asked. "Sir James will have to keep you and the boys, with his money, since there is hardly any left of my father's, and this is burden for him. Do not blame him for trying to make the burden as light as possible."
Suddenly, Cecilia's offer sounded much more appealing than it had been before. Helena decided to write to her friend and ask her to speak to Mrs. Montagu on her behalf. Anything would be better than staying at Hilmerton Park with her snobbish sister and smug brother-in-law. She would be a servant in both cases, Helena was aware of that -- only, in Mrs. Montagu's house she would be paid. Helena did not say anything more. She took the books and put them back into the shelves where she had taken them from, and left the room. The last she wanted was to "reduce the value of the property" by taking anything more than was entirely hers. Knowing her sister's husband, even that would be too much.
Helena woke up on her first morning in Hilmerton Park with the unpleasant feeling of being trapped. She had arrived there the evening before, and the tenants were to move into Erpingham Hall by the end of the following week. There was no way back. At least the new tenants of Erpingham Hall were respectable people, and someone Helena could like. She had met them only once, but they seemed to be a pleasant enough couple. That made it a bit easier for Helena to accept that Erpingham Hall was no longer her home. Neither was Hilmerton Park -- and it would never be. Helena knew she was not welcome here, even if Grace tried to make her believe that she was.
Slowly, Helena got dressed and made her way downstairs for breakfast. It was nothing to look forward to -- her brother-in-law would treat her with ice-cold courtesy, while her sister would act the same way she had always done. Grace had always been too self-centred to notice anything that was going on around her, unless it raised her interest. Helena had never been an interesting part of Grace's life.
Carter, Sir James's butler, greeted Helena respectfully and opened the door to the breakfast room for her. To her great relief, she found the table still empty. Perhaps, if she hurried up, she would manage to get out of the house and go for a walk before her ladyship vouchsafed to rise from her resting place, Helena thought. She had not yet helped herself to some bacon, however, when the door opened and Sir James entered the room, dressed in his riding clothes as he intended to go on one of his usual tours of the grounds immediately after breakfast.
"Ah, you are up. Good morning," he said curtly, and sat down at the table.
Helena answered his greeting politely and took her seat on the opposite side of the table. The table was not large enough, though -- there was not sufficient space between her and Sir James, in Helena's opinion.
"Is everything satisfactory," Sir John asked, without much interest in his voice.
"Oh yes, thank you very much, sir," Helena answered. As if she would not rather bite her tongue off than mention any wishes in Sir James's presence.
"Fine," he said. "My wife will be down shortly, or so she said. She will require your help later in the morning, if you can spare the time." His tone suggested that she'd better be able to spare the time.
"Certainly," Helena said, coldly. "All she will have to do is ask."
Sir James nodded, and started to go through the letters Carter had brought in. "Here is a letter for you," he said, but did not rise to bring it to Helena. Instead, she had to get up from her chair in order to fetch her letter. It was from Cecilia. Helena decided not to read it yet -- she did not like her brother-in-law's scrutinizing look on her.
A few minutes later, Grace joined them and asked Helena to help her with arranging the flowers in the various vases in the house.
"I remember you always did this so nicely at home, Helena," she said. "And after that I wanted to ask you to oversee the housemaids -- they have orders to polish the silver, and I had rather have someone around them. I am not suggesting that any of my staff are prone to stealing, but I do think one is well advised to prevent temptation."
Helena had already been wondering how long it would take until her sister would start treating her like her housekeeper. There was the answer -- on her very first morning in Hilmerton Park. Helena longed to open Cecy's letter to see what she had to say, especially in the case of Mrs. Montagu. If she was to be treated like a servant, Helena preferred really being one. Her chance to open her letter did not come until the evening. Grace kept Helena busy all day -- after overseeing the housemaids cleaning the silver, Helena had had to speak to the gardener about some new rosebeds for her sister, and she had had to go to the village in order to purchase some desperately needed ribbons for her.
Helena sat down at her dressing table and opened the letter. Cecy had spoken to Mrs. Montagu, and had given her all the particulars of Helena's situation. It seemed that Mrs. Montagu would be willing to employ Helena as her companion, provided that Helena applied as soon as possible.
Mrs. Montagu is not interested in making any unwelcome offers, Cecy wrote. But she has promised to treat your application favourably, should you be interested in coming to live with her. As I have told you, Mrs. Montagu is not a very patient person, so if you want to come and stay with her, you should write to her as quickly as possible. She likes having things her own way, as many people of her age do, and she can be rather acid and unfriendly, but this is only her façade. In fact, she can also be very kind and thoughtful, and a valuable friend to anyone who cares to be friends with her. I would not have suggested this, had I had any doubt that you could be content with your position in Mrs. Montagu's house. It does take some time to get used to her temper, but once one is better acquainted with her ways, I imagine her quite easy to live with.
Helena sighed. So she had to choose between living with an ill-tempered old lady and living with her own sister, who did not care for her in the least. Besides, there was the problem of her brothers. If she left Hilmerton Park, who was going to look after them? Even if they were to stay there during their holidays, Helena knew what their life would be like -- they would be in everybody's way and be treated accordingly. Could she actually quit Hilmerton Park and leave her brothers to the mercy of Sir James and his wife?
The following evening, Helena decided to write to Mrs. Montagu. Grace had been treating her like a servant all day, and Helena could not bear it any longer. Anything would be better than this. It took her some time to write the letter, and Helena started over several times until she was satisfied with what she had produced. The next morning, she would send the letter, and then she would wait and see.
For two more weeks, nothing happened, until one day Mrs. Montagu's reply to Helena's application arrived. Sir James noticed it as he was going through the post, as every morning.
"A letter for you," he said. "From a Mrs. Montagu in Somersetshire. I did not know you had any acquaintance in Somerset."
"Well, yes, I do," Helena said. "Mrs. Harrington, for instance."
"And Mrs. Montagu, of whom I have never heard a thing," Sir James said.
"Obviously," Helena said, irritably. She did not want to tell Sir James the truth. Not yet. "May I have my letter," she only asked, coolly.
"Certainly," Sir James said, handing her the letter and giving her a suspicious look. Before he could ask any more questions, Helena had already left the breakfast room.
"I do not quite like your sister's secretive ways," Sir James said to his wife. "Have you ever heard anything of this Mrs. Montagu?"
"I cannot remember," Lady Woodward replied calmly. "Why does this upset you so, my dear?"
"I was just wondering," he said, sourly. "Let us hope your sister is not up to something. I have some serious doubts as to the existence of Mrs. Montagu."
"She sent Helena a letter, so she must exist," Lady Woodward said.
"What if Mrs. Montagu is some fellow sending your sister letters under a false name?"
Lady Woodward laughed. "I can hardly imagine," she said. "Besides, was it not you who said that no one would be foolish enough to marry her?"
"Do you think a man sending letters pretending someone else's identity actually has marriage in mind?" Sir James asked. "Tonight I will ask your sister to show me the letter. I want to know what this is about."
Helena was sitting in the garden, reading her letter. Mrs. Montagu seemed to be a clever woman -- she had a perfect way of expressing herself, and apparently knew exactly what she was doing. Her suggestions were clear, as well as her thoughts of what her companion would have to do. There was nothing unreasonable in her letter.
Provided you concede to these terms of employment, Miss Erpingham, I shall be happy to receive you at Newark House by Michaelmas. Should you, by now, have changed your mind and are not in search of a position any more, please let me know immediately.
Helena still hesitated to accept Mrs. Montagu's offer. There were her brothers... Before she would send Mrs. Montagu her final answer, Helena wanted to ask them. They would be the only ones suffering from her being away from Hilmerton Park, so at least she should ask for their opinions. Helena went back inside the house and started to write a letter to Paul. She described her situation, although no one would be better acquainted with the circumstances than Paul was, and told him about the opportunity Mrs. Montagu had offered her. Then she told him why she hesitated to accept, and frankly asked him what she should do. If you ask me to stay where I am, dear brother, I will, she finished her letter. Now the decision lay with Paul, not with her. Whatever he suggested, she would do.
After dinner, she was sitting in the drawing room with her sister and mending the seam of one of her dresses when Sir James joined them and bluntly asked her to show him Mrs. Montagu's letter.
"Why do you want to see it," Helena asked cautiously.
"I want to know what your are up to," he said, angrily. "And do not deny that you are planning something, I know that you do."
"Fine," Helena said, with a sigh. "Since you have seen right through me, I guess I must confess the truth. I was going to elope with John Montagu, also known as The Masked Terror of Somerset, and was going to share his sinful life and assist him in his depraved deeds."
The shocked expression on both her sister and Sir James's face reminded Helena that neither of them was blessed with a sense of humour. It was the one thing they really had in common.
"I do not think you have a right to see my letters, Sir James," she therefore added, calmly.
"I think I do," Sir James said, furiously. "As long as you live under my roof..."
"Oh, somehow I knew you would mention that," Helena replied. "Yes, I am living under your roof, and had you asked me to show you the letter in a polite way, I might even have done so. But your tone already suggested you accused me of doing something wrong, and I do not see why I deserve such treatment. I am neither your daughter, Sir James, nor your ward. Besides I am old enough for you to trust my judgment."
"So you are not going to tell me what this letter was about?"
"I certainly am going to tell you," Helena said. "As soon as I see fit to do so."
"Helena, dear," Lady Woodward started. "I can see you are upset -- but why are you so secretive? Does the letter contain something we should not know? If so, I cannot help but thinking that your way of handling this situation is extremely improper. We are worried -- do not resent this."
Helena sighed. "If you really were worried about me, Grace, I would be the last person to blame you, even though your worries suggest that you do not trust me. But you gave no sign that you were worrying about anyone but yourself. You are afraid my conduct might bring disgrace on your house. You need not worry -- I am not going to do anything improper. Now you will just have to believe me until I decide to tell you more."
With these words, she got up and left the room. Sir James, though furious, did not dare to hold her back. Yet, Helena knew that she could not keep the secret for much longer. Only a few more days, until Paul had had time to answer her letter.
Luckily, Paul did not take much time to write his answer. A letter from him arrived only three days after Helena had sent hers, which was rather extraordinary -- though an affectionate brother, Paul was not the most reliable of correspondents.
His opinion was clear. I have talked it over with Frederick, and he agrees with me. Though we would be much happier to have you at Hilmerton Park, we have no right to ask you to stay there. Frederick suggested that at this lady's place you might find yourself a rich husband. If you do, find one who likes to have some boys around -- someone as unlike Sir James Woodward as possible. I thought you wanted to have my reply as quickly as possible, so I am going to send this letter with the next post. Remember, Helena, whatever you do, we will not blame you.
So she was free to do whatever she wanted, Helena thought, and decided to talk to Grace about Mrs. Montagu's offer. Sir James had ignored her for the last few days, probably meaning to punish her for her conduct, while in fact his behaviour had been a treat. Still smiling at Paul's ideas regarding her marriage, Helena entered her sister's dressing room where she knew she would find her at that time of day. Grace was sitting in front of her large mirror, her lady's maid doing her hair in a new spectacular style.
"What do you think of this," she asked Helena without turning around.
"Very elaborate," Helena answered. Their tastes concerning clothes and hair had never been the same.
"I know, but what does it look like?" Lady Woodward asked.
Since it might be important to have her sister's good will in a moment, Helena said, "It becomes you. -- Can you spare a moment? I would like to tell you something."
Lady Woodward dismissed her maid with a wave of her hand, and turned to her sister. "Well?"
"Sir James asked me to show him one of my letters, if you remember," Helena said.
"How could I not remember, Helena? The scene was extremely unpleasant. When did you become so stubborn? This was not your character as I remember it."
"Had Sir James asked me more politely, I would have shown him the letter," Helena said calmly. "I have nothing to hide."
"I do not think Sir James was impolite in any way," Grace said.
Not wishing to quarrel with her sister, Helena continued by producing the letter. "I will show it to you, Grace," she said. "I am certain you will be able to reassure your husband as far as my correspondence is concerned."
Grace took the letter and started to read. "This is out of the question, of course," she said when she reached the part where Mrs. Montagu offered Helena a position as her companion.
"Why exactly," Helena asked. "What is wrong with my going to live with a respectable lady?"
"First of all, we do not know the lady. How can you tell she is respectable, I wonder?"
"My friend, Mrs. Harrington, would hardly want me to stay with someone who is not, Grace."
"What is wrong with your staying with us, then?" Grace asked. "Are we not respectable enough?"
"I do not wish to be a burden on your husband," Helena said, cautiously.
"Whoever said so?" Grace exclaimed angrily.
"You did," Helena said, dryly. "You pointed out more than once that neither you nor your husband were very happy with this scheme."
"Anyway, you cannot go," Grace said. "What will everyone say? We will be the laughing stock of the neighbourhood!"
"No one would know unless you told them," Helena said. "I do not believe any of your friends have friends in the part of Somersetshire where I am going. You could tell them I was staying with Mrs. Harrington -- and even if you told them that I was staying with Mrs. Montagu, there is no reason for you to reveal what position I am going to take in her house."
"You cannot be serious," Grace answered. "How can you even think of such a thing? I will not let you go to that hideous place!"
"I can hardly imagine that Somerset should be hideous," Helena said.
"I will not allow it!"
"There is no way for you to allow me to do anything -- or to forbid me anything. I am of age, Grace."
"If you go, Helena, you will not be welcome in this house any more."
"What difference would it make," Helena exclaimed heatedly. "I have never been welcome in this house!"
"Leave," Grace said, with a similar wave of her hand she had given her maid before. "As far as I am concerned, this discussion is over. You know my mind."
Helena nodded, and left her sister's room.
Sir James was no more pleased to hear about Helena's plans than his wife, yet his opposition was not as strong as Helena had feared. Helena therefore posted her letter to Mrs. Montagu, telling her that she would arrive at Newark House by Michaelmas. Having done this, Helena started to prepare for her journey immediately. There was not much time left.
The preparations for Helena's journey were finished, and Helena was to leave Hilmerton Park the next day. Neither Grace nor her husband had spoken with her very often in the past weeks -- ever since she had informed them of her intention to become an elderly lady's companion, they had stopped favouring her with their conversation. Even though Helena had not cared much for their conversation in the first place, this made her feel more isolated than ever.
Soon after dinner, she retired to her room. The journey would be a long one, and this would be her last chance for sleeping well for several days.
As she left the drawing room, Grace said, coldly, "I have given orders for your breakfast to be served at five o'clock."
"That was very kind of you," Helena answered. "Thank you, Grace."
"I hope you will forgive me for my not getting up tomorrow to take my leave," Grace said. "Five o'clock is too early."
"In that case, we will have to take leave now," Helena said. Grace nodded.
"Good luck in Somerset," she said. "Do not forget to write."
Do you mean to say that my letters WILL be welcome in this house, whereas I will not, Helena thought but did not say so.
"I will write as often as I can," she simply said and turned to Sir James. "I wanted to thank you, sir, for showing me such friendship and hospitality in the past few weeks." Sir James did not seem to grasp the sarcasm in Helena's statement.
"Do not mention it," he said. "I would do as much for anyone in my family."
"I am very much obliged," Helena continued. "Will I see you tomorrow morning, sir?"
"I am afraid you will not, Miss Erpingham," he answered.
"In that case I will bid both of you farewell now," Helena said. "I will write immediately after my arrival in Newark House."
Grace nodded, without much interest. "I hope you will have a pleasant journey," she said placidly, and took up her embroidery as a sign that, as far as she was concerned, the conversation was ended.
Two days later, towards evening,
Helena got off the coach at Wells. Mrs. Montagu had suggested that Helena
should spend her first night in Somerset at Mrs. Harrington's house, as she did
not want her to travel the countryside after dark. Helena was quite happy with
that -- this gave her the opportunity to spend the evening with her old friend,
whom she had not seen since school days.
The moment she stepped down on the road, a coachman came towards her and asked her whether her name was Erpingham. Helena replied in the affirmative, and the man took started loading her trunks into a landau.
"Mr. Harrington has sent me to pick you up," he said by way of an explanation, held out his hand and helped her to get into the carriage.
"Is it far to Mr. Harrington's residence," Helena asked the coachman.
"No, Miss, just half a mile from here," was the coachman's answer. Glad that she would see her friend soon, Helena settled down on her seat and had a close look at her surroundings, as far as this was possible in the continually growing darkness.
After a short drive, they arrived at a large, modern building -- the Harringtons' house. The front door opened, and a footman came to carry Helena's trunks into the house. Close behind him followed Cecilia Harrington, her arms outstretched to receive her friend.
"Thank God you are here," she exclaimed, embracing Helena. "I was so worried that something might happen to you! My husband has been laughing at me all day."
"Miss Erpingham will get a bad impression of me if you continue to tell her such stories about me," a dry male voice said in the background. "I was not laughing at your worries, I was simply amused by your suggestions of what might happen -- I am still marvelling at your imaginative spirit."
Helena looked at her friend's husband. She had never seen him before and had already been curious to meet him. Mr. Harrington was not very handsome, but there was something very agreeable about him.
"Are you not going to introduce me, my dear?" he asked his wife with a smile.
"Of course I will, as soon as you will allow me to get a word in edgewise," Cecilia answered. "Helena, I would like to present my husband, Mr. William Harrington."
"I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, sir," Helena said smilingly.
"Not half as pleased as I am, I am sure," Mr. Harrington answered. "I do hope you had a pleasant journey, Miss Erpingham."
"Pleasant, but exhausting," Helena answered.
"In that case, we should not keep you standing outside for any longer," Cecilia said. "Do come inside! It is getting rather chilly out here, and I do not want you to catch a cold."
The Harringtons led Helena into a large, tastefully furnished drawing room. True, the furnishings were not quite as expensive as the ones Grace had in Hilmerton Park, but the whole atmosphere made the room much cosier than any in Lady Woodward's home.
Mr. Harrington soon left them to themselves, saying that he had some work to do and would meet them again at dinner.
"You have not dined yet," Helena asked Cecy.
"No, we always dine late," Cecy answered. "My husband prefers late dinners -- he says finishing work before dinner is much more satisfactory. Managing such a large estate must be rather boring, I think."
"I think it is not," Helena said. "Mr. Harrington must be a very busy man. You said you were going to travel to Italy next spring?"
"Yes, my husband has been planning to do so for a very long time. He wants to show me all the beautiful places he saw on his tour of Italy some years ago."
"This must be wonderful," Helena said wistfully. Cecy looked at her earnestly and said, "You will have a good husband yourself one day, Helena. Do not give up hope."
"Whoever would marry me, Cecy?" Helena asked.
"Someone who really loves you will not care whether you have money," Cecy answered determinedly. "And I would not want you to have a husband who does not really love you. You deserve better than that."
The next day, Helena got up early and prepared for the last part of her journey. Cecy had promised to accompany her and introduce her to Mrs. Montagu. Too bad she could not stay with the Harringtons for longer, she thought. Cecy had been as close to her as in the old days at school, and Mr. Harrington had been the most considerate host one could imagine. Helena believed that she could be very happy staying with the Harringtons, but it was not to be. Hopefully she would have the chance to visit them now and then while they were still there -- they were to start their journey to Italy in March, so there were nearly six months left until their departure.
After breakfast the carriage was ready, and Helena had to take leave of Mr. Harrington. She did so most unwillingly. Even though she had only just made his acquaintance, they had become good friends.
"I hope to see you here more often now that you are settled in the neighbourhood, Miss Erpingham," he said as he assisted her in getting into the carriage. "My wife has been very happy to be with you. I believe she has missed the old days very much."
"I will try to come here as often as I can," Helena said, with a smile. "But, of course, Mrs. Montagu will take up most of my time."
"Of course, Miss Erpingham. Good luck at Newark House."
"Thank you very much for your hospitality, sir," Helena said. This time, there was no sarcasm in her tone. Why could her own family not be like the Harringtons, she thought. She would not have to go and be an ill-tempered old lady's companion if they were.
During their trip to Newark House, Cecy told Helena everything she knew about Mrs. Montagu. Mrs. Montagu was a rich widow in her late sixties, who had been living alone since her husband's death ten years before. She had been married for nearly forty years, but, according to rumours in the neighbourhood, had not been very happy in her marriage. About two years after Mr. Montagu's decease, Mrs. Montagu's niece had moved in with her aunt, but had left her several months ago to get married.
"No one would have thought that Miss Davies might find a husband," Cecy said. "She was nearly thirty and, if you ask me, not much of a beauty. She went to Bath to visit her brother, and the next thing we heard was that she was married. Mrs. Montagu was furious."
"But why? She should have been happy for her niece to have found herself a husband in the end," Helena said.
"Not Mrs. Montagu," Cecy replied. "She said her niece was foolish to fall for a man's promises. As I told you, Mrs. Montagu was not very happy in her own marriage, and so she does not really approve of matrimony. She calls it an institution worse than any prison."
"Which is not much of a compliment for Mr. Montagu, I am sure," Helena said dryly. She became more curious to meet her employer -- Mrs. Montagu seemed to be an interesting character.
The following minutes, Helena spent looking at the beautiful countryside surrounding them. The morning mist was gone, and everything looked sparklingly fresh in the autumn sun. The trees and hedgerows were already changing the colours of their leaves, and the air was crisp and clear, as always on autumn mornings.
"We will soon reach the grounds of Newark House," Cecy finally said. "And if you look to the left, you can see the house in the distance."
Helena turned to look at the house. It was a stone building, older than Erpingham Hall, but not as big. The adjoining grounds looked as if they were well taken care of -- there was a large formal garden surrounding the house, and the lawn sloped down the hill until it reached the boundaries of a large orchard.
"What do you think of it," Cecy asked.
"It is beautiful," Helena answered.
They arrived at the portal of
the house some minutes later. An ancient butler opened the door, and informed
them that Mrs. Montagu was already expecting their arrival in the morning room.
He led them to a large, airy room, where Mrs. Montagu was seated in an easy chair facing the door.
"Mrs. Harrington and Miss Erpingham," he announced and left the room. Helena gave Mrs. Montagu a close look. She was a petite woman, and had undoubtedly been a stunning beauty in her youth. Even though her face was wrinkled and her hair was white, she still looked beautiful. Her eyes were dark and their gaze was sharp -- there was hardly anything that could escape her attention, Helena thought.
"Good morning," Mrs. Montagu said and rose, supported by an ebony cane. Her voice was an interesting contrast to her appearance -- it was a rich, full voice that seemed to belong to a much weightier person.
Cecy introduced her friend, and Helena curtseyed.
"You have had a pleasant journey, I trust," Mrs. Montagu said.
"Very pleasant, thank you, Madam," Helena said.
"Would you be so kind to ring the bell? The pull is over there." Mrs. Montagu said. "And then take a seat. You will want some tea, won't you? I know I do."
Helena went over to the fireplace and rang the bell. Then she took a seat on the sofa facing the French window. In looking out she recognised the formal garden she had seen before. In the centre of the garden there was a sundial, and several statues were placed on both sides of the lawn.
A maidservant arrived, carrying a tray and placing it on the table. Mrs. Montagu poured some tea into the cups and handed them to her guests.
"You may have wondered why I was looking for a companion, Miss Erpingham," she said. "You must know that until recently, my niece was staying with me. Unfortunately she has left me to get married."
"She must be very happy," Helena said cautiously.
"I do not hold with such nonsense," Mrs. Montagu said sharply. "I was married for nearly forty years -- nearly forty years of constant fighting. The day my husband died my real life began. I may be old and lonely now, but at least I am free to do what I want. As for my husband -- as long as he was alive, I had to worry where he was, and with whom he was. Now I can be quite certain in that respect. Such a relief, I can tell you."
Mrs. Montagu leant back in the easy chair, her eyes still flashing dangerously.
"There are happy marriages," Helena said.
"Oh yes, they are all happy. At the beginning. Why did you leave your sister's home, Miss Erpingham?"
"I did not really get along with my brother-in-law," Helena said. "He gave me the impression I was not welcome in his house."
"The Lord has not intended love between brothers and sisters-in-law," Mrs. Montagu said. "I could tell you some stories myself. No doubt you will be better off here. -- It was very kind of you to bring Miss Erpingham here, Mrs. Harrington, thank you very much. You will be needed at home, certainly."
Mrs. Montagu's tone did not really weaken the dismissal, but Cecy did not seem to resent it.
"I have plenty of things to do, Mrs. Montagu," she answered. "Do take good care of my friend, and I hope you will allow her to visit me now and then."
"I will allow her to do so whenever I can spare her," Mrs. Montagu said.
After Cecy had left, Mrs. Montagu sent for the housekeeper and told her to show Helena her room. It was on the second floor of the house, the windows overlooking the driveway. The furnishings were simple, but comfortable. Helena's luggage had already been brought there, and with a sigh Helena began to unpack her belongings. As soon as she had finished, she went back to Mrs. Montagu.
"Do you like your room," Mrs. Montagu asked. Helena said that she did, and thanked her.
"Mrs. Harrington has told me much about your family history, Miss Erpingham, so you need not repeat it to me. She told me that Erpingham Hall is situated in Buckinghamshire. Where exactly?"
"On the Thames, Madam, near Marlow."
"Conveniently situated then if one cares for visits to London. Very beautiful area, I have heard." Mrs. Montagu said.
"True, Mrs. Montague. It is very beautiful."
"And your sister is also settled in Buckinghamshire?"
"Yes, she is. Hilmerton Park is only a few miles from my home."
"Do you play Whist," Mrs. Montagu asked, abruptly changing the topic.
"I do," Helena replied. "Along with other card games. My father preferred playing cards to every other amusement."
Montagu said. "Unfortunate for him, I mean, but very fortunate for me. My
eyes are not getting better, and playing cards is one of the few amusements I
can still indulge in without having to count on someone else's help. Some of my
neighbours come here every Thursday evening -- we are a dull set, I must say,
but I do not mind. It passes the time to sit, talk and play cards. I do want
you to read to me every day, however -- I have always been very fond of reading,
but lately I had to give it up. My eyesight has become too bad for reading
-- You will find out, Miss Erpingham, that my schedule is very regular, and that there is hardly any variety in my life. I get up at eight o'clock every morning, and start on my journey to Wells at nine. In town, I make my purchases and collect my post. I do not trust anyone else with my letters, you must know. Then I come back here, make all the necessary arrangements with my housekeeper, and have dinner. On Thursdays, my neighbours join me to dine with me, and on Saturdays and Sundays I go to church in the nearby village. As I said, very regular, and rather dull for a young person. I am too old for an exciting life."
Helena assured Mrs. Montagu that she had no objection to leading a quiet life in the country. Especially now, so soon after her father's demise, she had no taste for balls or other amusements.
"In that case, Miss Erpingham, I have no doubt that we will get along famously," Mrs. Montagu said, and left her to dress for dinner.
Helena had her doubts, however -- yet she would try her best to be happy in Newark House. She did not have much choice. Either she could stay with Mrs. Montagu, or she would have to write her uncle in America. Going back to Hilmerton Park was impossible.
The following weeks were busy, but rather uneventful. Mrs. Montagu kept strictly to her schedule, and once Helena had got used to it, she dealt with her situation very well. Mrs. Montagu was not a bad employer, she was tolerant to a certain degree, and allowed her to roam the surroundings of the house freely whenever she had no use for her.
Often she took Helena with her on her drive into Wells, and allowed her to call on Cecy while she was settling her business there. In the evenings, Helena usually read to Mrs. Montagu for an hour and was then allowed to do whatever she wanted. Luckily, Mrs. Montagu had good taste in the choice of her books, so the reading did not pall. On Thursday evenings, Mrs. Montagu received her neighbours to dine with her, among them the neighbouring village's vicar, a Mr. Grimsby, and his wife, and an elderly gentleman who had once served in the army with Mrs. Montagu's husband. There were no young people in the circle, and although Helena enjoyed listening to Mrs. Grimsby and Mrs. Montagu's conversations, she sometimes missed talking to people of her own age.
On the whole, Mrs. Montagu was an agreeable employer -- she had given Helena an accurate description of what she expected her to do, and never asked for anything else. There was only one serious problem -- whenever Mrs. Montagu had made up her mind to do something, it was practically impossible to keep her from doing it, however unreasonable it was. Even if circumstances were extremely untoward, she stuck to her plans.
It was one particularly unpleasant morning in early November -- it had been raining all night, and it was chilly outside. The thought of going to Wells in such weather was not very tempting -- yet Mrs. Montagu, having planned this outing for several days, decided that she would go, disregarding the pouring rain.
"There is no reason why I should not go," Mrs. Montagu said when Helena pointed out that the journey would not be very agreeable in such conditions. "You need not come with me, if you do not want to, but I shall go."
Knowing that nothing would change Mrs. Montagu's mind, Helena got into the carriage with her. When they arrived in Wells, it had become stormy and the wind rendered their umbrellas quite useless. Before they had entered the first shop on Mrs. Montagu's list, they were already drenched. Again, Mrs. Montagu did not listen to Helena's entreaties to be more careful, and continued her shopping. When they finally came back to Newark House, they were both wet and cold.
"You had better change your clothes immediately," Mrs. Montagu said to Helena. "I do not want you to catch a cold."
Helena smiled. "The same thing applies to you, Madam," she said. "A cold would be much more dangerous to you than it would be to me."
"Nonsense. I have never been ill in all my life, and I do not have the intention of starting that habit now," Mrs. Montagu said determinedly. "I am going to change, however."
After dinner, they were sitting in the drawing room and Helena was reading to Mrs. Montagu, when suddenly Mrs. Montagu told her to stop reading and asked her to fetch a shawl from her room.
"It is rather cold in here, is it not?" she asked. "Remind me of talking to Jenkins tomorrow. There is no need to be so sparing with firewood. There is plenty in the sheds."
Helena did not answer. In her opinion, the room was nice and warm. She believed that Mrs. Montagu had caught a cold, but was too cautious to hint at it. Instead, she got up and fetched Mrs. Montagu's shawl. The next morning, Mrs. Montagu was late for breakfast, and she looked very ill.
"Are you unwell, Mrs. Montagu," Helena asked her.
"Nonsense. There are worse things than a bit of a headache and a runny nose," Mrs. Montagu said. "It will be gone tomorrow."
It did not escape Helena's notice that this evening, Mrs. Montagu went to bed earlier than usual. The next day, she did not turn up for breakfast, and Helena decided to go and have a look what might have detained her. She found Mrs. Montagu still in bed, and not at all well.
"Shall I send for a doctor, Mrs. Montagu," she asked. Mrs. Montagu denied vehemently that she was ill -- or in need of a doctor. "I will just stay in bed today," she said. "This will be gone tomorrow. The doctor has some real work to do, there is no need for him here."
"Very well, Madam," Helena said. "But let me know when you change your mind, and I shall send for the doctor immediately."
In the afternoon, Helena went to read to Mrs. Montagu, and noticed that her state had become worse. After having finished her reading, she went to the housekeeper's room and asked her what to do.
"I am quite certain a physician should see Mrs. Montagu, but she has told me not to send for one," she said. "What shall I do? I cannot take the responsibility for Mrs. Montagu's well-being, in such circumstances."
"Send for a doctor, then," the housekeeper said. "I have known Mrs. Montagu for years. Believe me, she will grumble, but in the end she will be glad you got the doctor here."
"Are you certain?" Helena asked. She did not want to risk anything.
"I shall take it on my head," the housekeeper said resolutely. "You send for the doctor, and tell Mrs. Montagu I did." Helena drew herself up to full height.
"There is no need to lie to Mrs. Montagu," she said firmly. "Will you please send someone to Mrs. Montagu's doctor and ask him to come here as soon as possible?"
Mr. Dixon had been Mr. Montagu's physician for decades, and so he had been sent for. He stayed in Mrs. Montagu's room for half an hour, and then joined Helena in the drawing room, where she offered him some tea.
"Will Mrs. Montagu get better soon," Helena asked him while pouring some milk into her tea.
"That depends on whether she will listen to my advice or not," Mr. Dixon replied, smiling. "As you may have found out already, Mrs. Montagu can be quite stubborn. She told me three times that she was not ill. Despite the evidence pointing into the opposite direction."
"Do you think I was right sending for you, then?" Helena asked.
"You certainly were, and so I have told Mrs. Montagu. Do not worry, Miss Erpingham, I do not think she resents your taking action."
"I am glad to hear it," Helena said. "What can I do to help Mrs. Montagu, sir?"
"Keep her in her bed," Mr. Dixon said. "That will be hard enough, believe me."
Mr. Dixon turned out to be perfectly right. It was hard to make Mrs. Montagu keep to her bed. Three days after the doctor's visit, she was up and about again -- with the consequence that she suffered a serious relapse.
This time, she had no choice but staying in bed, and she stayed there for two entire weeks. Mr. Dixon came to see her twice a day, and said that only with a great deal of luck he had been able to prevent a more serious illness.
"You are not five-and-twenty any more, Mrs. Montagu," he said strictly. "So, if you want your relatives to prepare their funeral garb, just get up and walk about a bit more. If you should, by any chance, wish to remain among them for a bit longer, however, you will do as I tell you."
Slowly, Mrs. Montagu was on the mend. After three weeks, she was able to leave her room for the first time. As Mr. Dixon came to call on her, she rose from her chair shakily and said, with a triumphant smile, "Did you get your funeral garb ready, Mr. Dixon?"
Mr. Dixon laughed good-naturedly. "I did not, Mrs. Montagu," he said. "I knew you were clever enough to know when to take my advice seriously. You do look very well, considering the circumstances."
Mrs. Montagu sat down again. Even though she tried to appear fresh and strong, she did not manage to fool anybody. Both Helena and Mr. Dixon knew how weak she really was.
Then Mr. Dixon made a suggestion. "Mrs. Montagu, this illness has cost you a great deal of your strength, if I may say so, and you ought to take every measure to recover it."
Mrs. Montagu gave him a suspicious look. "What exactly do you mean, Mr. Dixon?"
"I think you should spend some weeks in Bath, under the care of one of the excellent physicians there. There is someone I can particularly recommend. He is still rather young, but among the best. A Mr. Thomas Carmichael."
"I have heard of him," Mrs. Montagu said. "He is my nephew's family doctor, and, as far as I know, one of his best friends."
"Even better!" Mr. Dixon exclaimed. "Mr. Carmichael has so many patients that he can pick and choose among the new arrivals in town, but if he is acquainted with your nephew, I am certain he will treat you with particular deference."
"I do not want to go to Bath," Mrs. Montagu protested. "I have always disliked the place. Nothing but stupid young things hunting for gouty old fools with a large fortune. You know the sort of men -- those who think that a young wife makes them be young again. I have no desire to watch their proceedings in the Pump Room -- or anywhere else, for that matter. Men will be fools everywhere, but let them be fools without my having to witness it."
Helena cleared her throat and got up from her seat. "I think I had better let you discuss this matter in private," she said. "If you will excuse me..."
"You see, Mr. Dixon, I have insulted Miss Erpingham's delicate feelings -- she is a romantic, like most young ladies without an idea of life. Do not worry, Miss Erpingham, you will see my point. If not now, just wait a few years." She gave Helena a nod, indicating that, as far as she was concerned, Helena was allowed to leave the room. Mr. Dixon stayed for another hour, and Helena was glad she did not have to be present during the entire discussion. When he left, however, he gave her a friendly smile and said, "Miss Erpingham, you are soon going to leave Newark House to go to a much livelier place. I hope you will enjoy yourself in Bath."
"Mrs. Montagu has decided to go there, then? Amazing -- after all, she was strongly against it at first."
Mr. Dixon laughed. "I know people like Mrs. Montagu," he said. "All I had to do was point out that no one really wanted her in Bath -- that was reason enough for her to change her mind."
That evening Mrs. Montagu confirmed what Mr. Dixon had already told Helena. She was going to stay at Newark House for another two weeks and would start her journey to Bath in the second week of December -- provided the weather was fine enough for travelling then.
She told Helena that she had already written to her nephew, announcing her visit in Bath.
"He has invited me so often, he will not mind my finally deciding to accept one of his invitations."
Helena doubted it -- had not Mr. Dixon said that "no one really wanted Mrs. Montagu in Bath"? But then it was very likely that Mr. Dixon was not acquainted with Mrs. Montagu's nephew.
"My nephew is a good sort," Mrs. Montagu said, and for a moment her voice sounded wistful. "He and his sister were the nearest thing I ever had to children of my own. They came here to visit several times when they were children, and my niece stayed with me for years. She only left when she got married. I blame her brother -- he introduced her to her husband. They have got another brother, John, the eldest, who has inherited my family's home in Wiltshire. I have not seen him for years, but I suppose he is doing well. Philip, my younger nephew, settled in Bath when he married, and still lives there. So does Emma, my niece. You will meet her and her husband quite often, I am afraid. Emma's husband is a bore -- honestly, I see no reason for her to have married him. This is why I do not want to stay with them -- I cannot stand Mr. Howard, no matter how hard I try."
Helena suspected that Mr.
Howard's having married Mrs. Montagu's niece and taken her away from her aunt
was the prime reason for Mrs. Montagu's aversion to him, but she did not say
They spent the rest of the evening peacefully, Helena reading to Mrs. Montagu and then going to bed.
Bath ... she had never been in Bath before. She had been in London a couple of times, but had not really enjoyed it there. Why some people could not live without their London Season, was far beyond Helena's understanding. Perhaps Bath was more pleasant -- it was smaller, but it had a great deal of amusement to offer. Even though Helena was not yet ready to attend a ball, she would not mind going to the theatre or to concerts. With pleasant dreams of Bath, she finally fell asleep.
"Sir, can I speak to you for a moment," Mrs. Doyle, the housekeeper, asked on entering the study.
Philip Davies leant back in his chair and said, "May I guess? It is about my son."
"It is about Master Jeremy, yes, sir."
Philip sighed. "What has he done this time, Mrs. Doyle?"
"He has treated my poor little kitten with such cruelty..." Mrs. Doyle began. Philip somehow managed not to grin. Mrs. Doyle's poor little kitten was a fully-grown tomcat, older than Jeremy, and the entire dog population of Bath lived in constant dread of him. Whenever Mephisto came around the corner, one could see a couple of yelping dogs either seeking cover or pretending to be dead. The poor little kitten had more than lived up to his name. However, if Jeremy had managed to be cruel to such an incarnation of evil as Mephisto was and was still in possession of all his limbs, action had to be taken. One Devil's incarnate in the household was enough. Philip patiently listened to Mrs. Doyle's story, at times shaking his head in disapproval, and finally promising to "have a word with his son".
"I hope so, sir," Mrs. Doyle said, indignantly. "I could not stay in a household where cruelty to animals is tolerated." Then she left Philip's study, leaving him to devise some punishment for his son.
One had to hand it to Jeremy; he
never did anything that his father had expressly forbidden him to do. The
problem was that even though Philip knew his son inside and out, not even he
was able to fathom Jeremy's capacity of mischief -- so either he forbade the boy
to leave his room except in cases of fire or flooding, or he put up with
Jeremy's occasional outbursts of creativity.
These were the problems of a single father, Philip thought, and wondered how others might deal with those. He wondered if it was his fault, if he did not give Jeremy enough attention and his misbehaviour was nothing but an attempt at raising his father's interest -- or whether he was simply too indulgent, so the boy believed to be able to get away with anything.
Philip rose from his chair and went to Jeremy's room. He opened the door to the nursery and found him sitting at the table with Emily Hunter, the nursery-maid, having his dinner. He did not seem to be surprised to have his father for a visit. It happened, occasionally -- especially when Jeremy had played one of his tricks.
"Good evening, Father," he said, calmly. Philip paused for a moment to look at the boy. Jeremy's likeness to his mother was amazing -- the same flaxen hair, the same blue eyes, and even his expression was alike, sometimes. "Do you want to join us," Jeremy said. "Emily can go and get another plate if you want to." The boy sounded older than his eight years.
"No, thank you," Philip said. "I am going to dine with Mr. Carmichael later. Mrs. Doyle has just been to see me. Can you imagine what she wanted?"
Jeremy sighed. "I did not mean to hurt the cat, father," he said. "It just happened."
How nicely put, Philip thought. "I do not believe you meant to hurt the cat," he said. "But what I really want to know, Jeremy, is, how did you get the idea to smear the poor animal with mustard in the first place? For Heaven's sake, it is not a usual thing to do, is it?"
"The mustard was handy," Jeremy said, in a matter-of-fact tone. Of course. That explained everything. At least it was supposed to. Jeremy looked at his father leaning in the doorway, giving him one of his special looks. The one with the raised eyebrow.
"I was having luncheon at the time," Jeremy continued by way of an explanation.
"Had you been having your dinner, Jeremy, what would you have used then?"
"I do not know," Jeremy said. "Gravy, maybe?"
"Mephisto would certainly have preferred that," Philip said dryly. "What was the purpose of the mustard, Jeremy?"
"You know the way Mephisto sits there when he is cleaning himself?" Jeremy asked. "Sitting on his hind legs, with his front paws sticking out like that..." He demonstrated what he meant. "I think that is so droll, you know. I just wanted to see him do this. Really, I did not mean to harm him."
No wonder the cat had gone berserk, Philip thought.
"And I am really sorry about that vase," Jeremy went on.
"What vase?" Philip stared at his son in surprise. No one had mentioned a vase, until now.
"You mean Mrs. Doyle did not tell you about the vase?" Jeremy asked, cautiously.
"No, but you are going to tell me. Now."
"The Chinese one in the dining room," Jeremy said, quietly. "It is broken -- Mephisto literally went up the wall, and knocked it over."
The Chinese vase in the dining room was, thank God, not really Chinese, but an imitation, and not even a very good one, Philip thought. The only reason for its being there had been the fact that it had been a wedding present from Louisa's aunt, and Louisa had been quite fond of it. Now it was gone -- well, it could not be helped. Hopefully Aunt Constable would not notice, should she ever come for a visit. Coming to think of it, hopefully Aunt Constable would never come for a visit.
"Now, listen, Jeremy," Philip said sternly. "First of all, I want you to apologize for what you have done. You will go to Mrs. Doyle and tell her how sorry you are. Secondly, you will write I must not be cruel to animals - two hundred times." Jeremy groaned.
"Make that three hundred, and if I hear one more complaint it will be five hundred," Philip said. "Thirdly, and I hope I will not have to remind you of this, Jeremy, you will stay away from the cat -- do not even think of repeating the trick with gravy, honey, jam or whatever, do you hear?"
"Fine. You know, Jeremy, I would really appreciate it if you could, just for a day or two, behave yourself," Philip said.
"I shall try," Jeremy said quietly.
Philip left his son's room, hoping that Jeremy had not noticed his grin. Back in his study, he began to laugh. "The mustard was handy," he repeated his son's argument.
One thing was certain -- Jeremy did make his life interesting.
"The boy needs a mother," Thomas Carmichael said when Philip told him the story.
"How good of you to remind me," Philip answered bitterly. He did not have many weak spots, but this was one of them. It was not kind of Carmichael to dwell on this particular topic.
"You know what I mean," Carmichael said. "For Heaven's sake, Davies, eight years have gone by."
"I do not care how much time has passed since Louisa died," Philip said. "I still miss her - I cannot go on as if nothing had happened."
Carmichael sighed. He believed that his friend's attitude was unhealthy. Instead of moving on, he still lived in the past, firmly holding on to it. This was not only his opinion, but also Mrs. Howard's. Ever since she had been married, she had tried to introduce her brother to eligible young ladies, hoping that he might find someone to take the late Mrs. Davies's place. So far, she had not been very successful.
"When will Jeremy be going to school," Carmichael asked, to change the subject.
"At the end of next year," Philip answered. "It will get rather lonely then, I am afraid. One reason for me to wish he could stay. What am I going to do with my time, once I need not admonish him every half hour?"
"Buy yourself a couple of dogs," Carmichael answered, smiling. "Or get married."
"Carmichael," Philip said, in a threatening tone. "How much did my sister pay you to say this?"
"Nothing. Which is amazing -- after all my advice is worth my weight in gold." Carmichael grinned.
"Do you get your weight in gold for every piece of advice you give," Philip asked.
"I wish," Carmichael said. "But not everyone takes my advice, unfortunately."
"You will have to work harder to make a home for Miss Mackay, then. How is she? May I ask?"
"Of course you may," Carmichael said. "She will come to Bath in January -- with her family. If everything goes well, we will be married next spring."
Carmichael had been engaged to be married for four years. The only reason why he was not married already had been his eagerness to establish a really comfortable home for his future wife. Lately, he had bought a house in George Street, and all he was waiting for now was for Miss Mackay to furnish it according to her taste. In the meantime, he remained in his lodgings in Milsom Street, waiting for the Mackays' arrival and working hard to ensure a sufficient income to support his family. Philip envied him. Carmichael had everything before him -- a wife, and a family. For him, all this had ended eight years ago, when, within a few hours, his son had been born -- and his wife had died.
When the post arrived the next morning, Philip was surprised to find a letter from his aunt Montagu among his correspondence. Aunt Montagu had been most displeased when Emma had married, and had blamed him for his sister's misfortune. Meanwhile everyone, even Aunt Montagu, had to admit that the Howards' marriage was by no means unhappy, but then it was probably impossible to convince Aunt Montagu that there was such a thing as a happy marriage in existence. As it was, this was the first letter from Aunt Montagu since Emma's wedding. Philip opened it, curious to see what had finally moved his relative to forget about her grudge and write to him. He read the letter, and, after having finished doing so, he read it again. No, this was not a nightmare. Mrs. Montagu wished to honour Bath -- and him -- with her visit. Even worse, she meant to stay for eight weeks.
Philip decided to ask his sister for help. Emma had lived with her aunt for years, she knew her ways, and certainly it would not be a problem for the Howards to accommodate Mrs. Howard's aunt...
"No," Emma Howard said. "You do not think I would allow Aunt Montagu to stay in Mr. Howard's house, after all the dreadful things she has said about him. Even if I did -- it would be an insult to my husband."
"But, Emma, what will Aunt Montagu do here?" Philip asked. "There is no one to keep her company in this house -- except Jeremy, perhaps, though I am not certain what effect he will have on her nerves. Please, Emma."
Emma shook her head. "She wishes to visit you, Philip. Not me. Had she wanted to come to my place, she would have written to me. Besides, you have invited her more than once."
"Only because I thought she would not come."
Emma laughed. "Your plan went wrong, it seems," she said. "She will come. Now, if you need my assistance in preparing everything for her visit, you are most welcome to have it. But Aunt Montagu will not stay in Henrietta Street. Our house is smaller than yours, Philip."
Philip sighed. "It cannot be helped, then," he said. "But do count on many invitations to dine with us while she is here. I need someone to take care of her."
"I thought she was going to bring along her companion?" Emma asked. "Besides Aunt Montagu has a large acquaintance in Bath. There is no need for you to be there for her all the time. Just get a room ready for her, and everything will be fine. On the whole, Aunt Montagu does not require much. Oh, you should ask your friend Mr. Carmichael to call on her as soon as possible."
Carmichael would be delighted, no doubt. He had enough patients already, without Philip's old aunt. Philip nodded, and rang for a servant. It was time to inform Mrs. Doyle.
It was late afternoon when Helena and Mrs. Montagu arrived in Bath. Helena looked out of the carriage window to catch glimpses of the town, and liked what she saw. Elegant buildings with large windows lined the street both on the left and right. Servants were bustling around, each of them pursuing some important business or other. Ladies and gentlemen in fashionable clothes were strolling in the streets, giving Helena the impression that they had nothing to do but to see and be seen.
"If you look out of the window over here," Mrs. Montagu remarked, "you can see Pulteney Bridge. We will arrive soon -- my nephew resides in Pulteney Street." Helena resisted the temptation to lean out of the window. Certainly she would have ample opportunity to see Pulteney Bridge in the weeks to come.
A few minutes later, the carriage stopped. "Here we are," Mrs. Montagu said.
Helena, glad that her journey was at an end, got out of the carriage and had a look round. She loved what she had seen of Bath so far -- and even though she had not seen much, Helena believed that Mrs. Montagu's nephew lived in one of the most fashionable areas.
The front door of the house opened, and out came a footman, followed by another manservant and two ladies.
"Welcome to Bath," the younger one of them said. "I hope you had a pleasant journey, Aunt."
So this must be Mrs. Davies, Helena thought.
"Emma," Mrs. Montagu said, stiffly. "I had thought your brother would welcome me here."
"He wanted to do so, Aunt," the lady said, "but he was called away on important business about an hour ago. I am afraid you will have to be content with the welcome I can give you."
At this point, it began to dawn on Helena that, most likely, there was no Mrs. Davies -- if there had been, she would have received them, not Mr. Davies' sister. Mrs. Montagu introduced Helena to her niece. Mrs. Howard was tall, and rather plain, but she seemed to be very agreeable.
"I am pleased to finally meet the lady who has taken my place in Newark House," she said, giving Helena a friendly smile. "I was already afraid that my aunt might get lonely -- I am very happy that this is not the case." Then Mrs. Howard introduced the other lady to them. It was Mrs. Doyle, Mr. Davies' housekeeper.
Mrs. Doyle led them into the drawing room of the house and told them that she had ordered some refreshment for the travellers.
"There is nothing better than a good cup of tea after a long journey," she said. "And since Mr. Davies will not be back before seven o'clock, it may take some time until dinner, so I have taken the liberty of preparing something to eat as well."
Helena's thanks were heartfelt. She had not eaten anything ever since breakfast in Newark House -- Mrs. Montagu had stopped at an inn halfway between Wells and Bath, but Helena had not felt very hungry at the time, and had eaten nothing.
During their repast, Helena took a closer look at the drawing room. It was large and comfortably furnished. On the walls there were water-colours which had, most likely, been done by an amateur -- though, as far as Helena could judge, it had been an extraordinarily gifted one.
In one corner, there was a harp. Mrs. Howard noticed Helena's gaze resting on the instrument, and said, "Do you play the harp, Miss Erpingham?"
Helena smiled. "I have to admit, to my great shame, that I have never managed to learn to play an instrument," she said. "I have got quite a passable voice, but that is about it. Whom does the harp belong to?"
"It used to be my sister-in-law's," Mrs. Howard said. "My brother has not had the heart to remove it, so it is still where it was when she was still alive."
"I am very sorry to hear that Mrs. Davies has passed away," Helena said. "I did not know that -- Mrs. Montagu has not mentioned anything about it."
"It is not my favourite conversation topic," Mrs. Montagu said brusquely. "I decided to let you find out for yourself."
Helena thought of how awkward the situation would have been, had Mr. Davies received them instead of his sister. He might have thought her questions impertinent, and her talking about his wife might even have hurt him. Obviously, Mrs. Montagu had not considered that possibility, or she would have informed Helena.
"How is the boy," Mrs. Montagu inquired.
"Jeremy is well and thriving," Mrs. Howard answered, sounding slightly annoyed at Mrs. Montagu's referring to her great-nephew as the boy. "And giving his father a great deal of trouble at times, but Philip manages very well on the whole."
"Is Jeremy not at home?" Mrs. Montagu wanted to know.
"He is, but his father has strictly forbidden him to leave the room. He nearly frightened his nurse to death yesterday evening, by pretending to be ill. It seems he wanted to avoid his Latin lessons."
Helena smiled. "When it comes to avoiding their lessons, boys can invent the most amazing strategies," she said.
"True, but such behaviour cannot be tolerated," Mrs. Howard said. "If one wants young people to have a sense of duty, it is better to teach them while they are still young. Luckily, my brother shares that opinion. With his mother dying at such young age, we were all afraid that the boy would be spoilt by his father."
"I do not believe affection could spoil a child -- no matter how much he gets."
"Affection does not, but indulgence does. Some parents do not know the difference between the two," Mrs. Howard replied. "I am glad that my brother does."
"So you should be," Mrs. Montagu remarked. Having finished her tea, she rose. "I would not mind going to my room now," she said. "I need some rest -- and I need to get ready for dinner."
Helena's room was on the second floor, overlooking the rear entrance to the house. The room was large and airy, and Helena thought it was rather cosy. She would like it here. Her trunks had been brought up, and Helena began to unpack them. Suddenly there was a large black cat sitting on the window sill, looking inside and watching Helena. Helena opened the window, but the cat did not go away. Instead it came inside, jumped on the floor went to the door. As it realised that the door was not open, it turned to Helena and mewed imperiously. Helena laughed. She went to the door and picked up the cat, which the cat did not appreciate at all, it seemed. It was staring at Helena furiously, and digging its claws into Helena's wrist.
Helena opened the door, and asked the housemaid that was just coming up the stairs, "Whose is this cat, do you know?"
The girl glanced at the cat and said, "This is Mephisto, he belongs to Mrs. Doyle. If you let him go, Miss, I am sure he'll find his way back to where he belongs."
Carefully, Helena placed Mephisto on the floor and watched him dash downstairs. In turning around to go back to her room, she realised that the door to one of the front rooms was open, and if her eyes were not deceiving her, there was a small boy looking out of the room. When Helena moved towards the door, the door closed. Helena smiled, and knocked. There was no answer. She knocked again. "Is anybody at home?" she asked.
"I am," she heard a clear voice answer. "But I am not supposed to go outside."
"Do you mind if I come in, then?" Helena said. "I would like to introduce myself."
"Oh, I do not mind at all," the voice replied, and the door opened again. Helena smiled at the fair-haired boy who was looking at her anxiously.
"Good evening," she said. "I am Helena Erpingham, and it seems that we are next-door neighbours."
"No, we are not," the boy answered. "I know the people who live next door."
Helena laughed. "You are right, of course," she said. "But I was referring to the room next to yours. I have come here with Mrs. Montagu."
"Oh. I am Jeremy Davies," the boy said and extended his hand, obviously remembering his manners. "I am honoured to make your acquaintance, Miss Erpingham."
They shook hands, and the boy opened the door a bit wider to let Helena come in. "This is a nasty scratch on your hand," he said. "Mephisto?"
"Yes, it was Mephisto. I am afraid he does not like me."
"Mephisto does not like anyone," Jeremy said. "You are in good company. He hates Benson, and he absolutely despises my father."
"What about you? Does he like you?" Helena asked.
"He used to, but not any more. I played a trick on him two weeks ago, and he has not forgiven me yet. He only lets me touch him if I give him kippers in return. He would do anything for kippers, you know."
"I shall remember it," Helena said, smilingly. "Perhaps I can become friends with him after all. I am afraid I will have to leave you now -- I need to get ready for dinner."
"Oh," the boy said, looking disappointed.
"I shall call on you tomorrow, if you do not mind," Helena said. "Just like a next-door-neighbour should do. What do you think? Do you want me to come?"
Jeremy nodded fervently. "Oh yes," he said. "Life is so boring up here."
"I shall try to make it less boring for you, then," Helena said, and opened the door. "Meanwhile, have a nice evening -- and good night."
"Good night," the boy said, and returned to his writing desk, where a book was waiting for him.
Philip took a deep breath before he entered his house that evening. Hopefully his aunt would be in a good mood -- he did not feel up to arguing with her, not tonight. Benson, his valet, was filling him in on the ladies' arrival while Philip was getting ready for dinner.
Yes, in his opinion Mrs. Montagu had looked rather ill, although he could, of course, not judge Mrs. Montagu's appearance, not having been acquainted with her, after all. The lady's companion was a Miss Erpingham, and, in Benson's view, quite nice.
"I have not seen much of her," he said, "but Mrs. Doyle said she sounded very reasonable, and was an altogether pleasant person."
At least one ray of light, Philip thought. Having to put up with his aunt was bad enough, but if his aunt's companion was a stupid, boring, sour old maid things would be even worse.
When he was ready, there was still some time left until dinner, and Philip decided to go to his study and write some letters. That way, he could spend more time with the ladies later. Not that he really wanted to, but he felt it was his duty, since he had not been there to receive them immediately at their arrival.
Helena believed in first impressions. They did go a long way, no matter what other people might think about it. It was therefore important to her to make a good first impression on her host. Helena was far from deluding herself, and she knew that, even if Mrs. Montagu was a welcome guest in his house, this did not necessarily mean that she was, too.
Helena put on her dark blue dress -- "wearing black does not mean one is really mourning someone's death. It simply means one wishes to make the impression as if one were mourning", Mrs. Montagu had said once. In her opinion, there were other ways to demonstrate one's grief. She would be pleased to see Helena in dark-blue instead of black, but the colour was still dark enough to give Helena the feeling that she was doing what was proper -- especially since she did not wear any adornments except her black shawl, and did not bother too much about her hair. A plain, simple hairdo would be sufficient.
Looking at the clock on the mantelpiece in her room, Helena realised that it was about time to go downstairs to the drawing room. In the past weeks, she had found out that Mrs. Montagu believed punctuality to be indispensable -- at least she expected other people to be punctual, while she was more generous with herself. She hated waiting, but she had no problems at all with other people having to wait for her.
As she arrived downstairs, a door opened and out came a gentleman, pausing the moment he saw her.
"Good evening," he said affably. "You must be Mrs. Montagu's companion. Miss Erpingham, is that correct?"
"Absolutely," Helena said and smiled. "You must be her nephew. Mr. Davies, if I remember correctly."
He laughed. "It seems we have already heard a great deal about each other," he said. "Am I late?"
"No, I do not think so," Helena said.
"Good," he said, with a sigh of relief, opening the drawing room door and inviting Helena to go in. In the darkness of the hallway Helena had not been able to distinguish much of his appearance. Now she gave Mr. Davies a close look. He was pleasant-looking and well-dressed. Not dandy-like, but elegant. His hair was short and curly, and darker than his son's, though it was still rather fair.
Not wishing to give him the impression she was staring at him, Helena looked towards the door and said, "As you see, you had no reason to fear you might be late, sir."
Mr. Davies smiled. "My aunt has always preferred being the last one to arrive. She does not belong to the sort of people whose arrival should pass unnoticed. -- Do you like your room, Miss Erpingham? Do not hesitate to say if you need anything."
"I like my room very much, thank you, sir," Helena replied. It had not escaped her attention that Mr. Davies was trying to take in as many details of her appearance as possible -- without seeming rude.
"I hope you do not mind being on the second floor," Mr. Davies said. "There is only one guest room on the first floor, and my aunt, being an invalid..."
His explanation was interrupted by Mrs. Montagu's entrance.
"I am NOT an invalid," she snapped. Mr. Davies frowned, but chose to remain silent on the subject.
"Good evening, Aunt," he simply said. "Have you recovered from your long journey?"
"No thanks to you," Mrs. Montagu said sharply. "Why did you put me into this tiny guest room when there is a more comfortable room entirely empty? The room your housekeeper gave me is barely larger than a housemaid's."
"I do not quite understand, Aunt," Mr. Davies replied. "You have been given the best room in the house. The empty one used to be my wife's, and has remained empty for the last eight years."
"Still waiting for her to come back, are you?" Mrs. Montagu asked coldly. Mr. Davies winced. Helena gasped. How could Mrs. Montagu be so horrible, especially with someone who, according to her description, "was the nearest thing she had to a son"?
With the look of someone who was, with great difficulty, restraining himself and trying to remain polite, Mr. Davies rang for a servant and ordered that their dinner was to be served immediately. Politely, he offered Mrs. Montagu his arm, and led her to the dining room. Helena followed them, still dumbstruck. What had possessed Mrs. Montagu?
It took Philip all evening to recover from his aunt's allusion to Louisa. He spent dinner watching the clock on the mantelpiece, waiting impatiently for the dessert, knowing the ladies would leave him alone after that. Once they had left the dining room, he gave a sigh of relief. This was worse than he had imagined. Aunt Montagu had turned out even more bitter and disagreeable as he had remembered her.
When Benson entered the dining room, Philip asked him to give him a glass of whisky, and ordered him to leave the bottle on the table, as he would help himself to more if he needed it. Benson gave him a worried look, but years of experience as a valet had taught him to keep his mouth shut when his comments were not asked for.
What had driven Aunt Montagu to openly insult him, Philip asked himself. What gave her the right to treat him the way she did? Someone who had openly declared that she intended to celebrate her husband's anniversary of death every year? Her own Independence Day, she had called it. How could she compare her marriage to his?
Philip decided to show his aunt her limits -- the sooner the better. One more comment like that, and she would have to endure his opinion, whether she wanted it or not.
At least Miss Erpingham was not the sour old maid he had believed her to be. She would be an agreeable guest, no doubt. There would be no complaining about the smallness of her room -- she seemed to be a polite, reasonable young woman. The look of horror on her face when Aunt Montagu had asked him whether he was still waiting for his wife to return...there was still hope for her, if she did not stay with Aunt Montagu for too long. Perhaps Bath would do her good as well. No one as well-mannered and kind -- and pretty, Philip added reluctantly -- should waste her life attending on an old dragon like Mrs. Montagu.
Philip braced himself. He needed to join the ladies in the drawing room. It was his noble mission tonight to save Miss Erpingham from the terrible fate of spending the evening all alone with Aunt Montagu.
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