Secrets and Suspicions

An epistolary novelette inspired by Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon

When Elizabeth Howard is invited to spend a few weeks at the home of one of her pupils, the sister of a young baronet, she does not expect to be taken for a rich heiress or to be involved in romantic intrigues.

Contents

Prologue

Letter I

Letter II

Letter III

Letter IV

Letter V

 

Letter VI

Letter VII

Letter VIII

Letter IX

Letter X

Letter XI

 

Letter XII

Letter XIII

Letter XIV

Letter XV

Letter XVI

Letter XVII

 

Letter XVIII

Letter XIX

Letter XX

Letter XXI

Epilogue

 

 

Prologue

 

June 22, 1816

My Dearest Margaret,

I am afraid I must beg you to take on the painful task of informing our dear Papa that I will not be coming directly home this summer. One of the students here, the Honourable Miss Naomi Burley, has asked me to spend a few weeks with her at her family’s estate in Sussex. I own I am as surprised by this invitation as you must be as Miss Burley has never been a special friend of mine, but then I collect that she has few friends here. It seems that the poor girl is encumbered with an exceptionable grandmother. It was before my time, but I am told that she came to visit her granddaughter once and left such an unfavourable impression that Miss Burley has been shunned ever since.

I am not to go alone. Miss Burley has also invited a Mlle Marie Deschamps, a Creole heiress from the West Indies. She and Miss Burley have found common cause as she is also shunned, in her case for her exceptional colour. To my eyes she is quite handsome and the olive cast to her complexion only enhances the pleasing proportions of her features, but the other students will have it that she is a mulatto. I fear their ill-use of her comes rather from envy of her beauty and agreeable, although somewhat excitable, disposition.

Miss Burley has been so exceedingly anxious that Mlle Deschamps and I should accompany her home that I have found it impossible to refuse her. I would much prefer to come home to you and dear Papa, but I must be practical.

If Papa demurs, you had best remind him that I have been very fortunate in procuring a position in Mrs Llewellyn’s school which, with its excellent reputation, attracts young ladies from the best families. As a young woman with no fortune or prospects to recommend me to polite society, if I am ever to make any profitable connections, I must make the most of my few opportunities. And an invitation from the sister of a Baronet (a young, handsome and eligible Baronet, I am reliably informed) is an opportunity I cannot let pass.

Please tell Papa that I will miss you both terribly, kiss him for me and know, my dearest Margaret, that

I shall always remain,
Your most loving sister,
Elizabeth

 

Letter I

 

July 12, 1816

My Dearest Papa,

I have just time to write before the postbag is to be taken, so please forgive me if this letter is brief. Our party arrived at Sandridge House today in the mid-afternoon after spending our last night on the road at an inn at Tonbridge Wells. Our journey has been at Lady Burley’s entire expense as she sent her carriage to Bath to fetch us, and a very fine, if somewhat heavy and old-fashioned carriage it is, with a crest as well as footmen in livery.

Our first sight of the house was down a wide, elm-lined drive, and what a sight it was. I warrant you never thought your little Elizabeth would ever be asked to stay in such a house, Papa. How it shone, white and pure in the sunshine, reflected in a broad lake with a large Italianate fountain. Two long wings meet at the centre under a deep portico atop a double row of Ionic columns. There the three rows of perfectly proportioned windows became two of truly majestic dimensions. The front door is approached by a broad sweep of shallow steps. In the hall, with proportions to match, we were met by a butler in livery and powdered wig, flanked by several footmen. Mlle Deschamps and I were each assigned our own maids who accompanied us to our chambers. My room is large and comfortable and overlooks the park. In the distance one can glimpse the sea.

After attending to my toilet, I went down to tea, but on the way, I discovered the library. I thought of you as soon as I saw it, Papa. How you would love it, with all its walls lined with books to the very ceiling and large south facing windows to read by. Already I have found volumes of The Iliad and The Odyssey, even in the Chapman translations that you read to us as children.

Lady Burley herself played hostess at tea and she introduced us to Sir Charles, her grandson, and her companion, a Miss Arianne Martin, a young cousin. Lady Burley is most welcoming, quite the granddame, if a little old-fashioned in her dress and expression. And as for Sir Charles? Well, let us say Papa, that he is a very handsome young Baronet, and to marry him for the sake of this house would be no great sacrifice.

The post boy has rung the bell and so I must close,

But I remain, as ever, my dearest Papa,
Your most devoted daughter,
Elizabeth

 

Letter II

 

July 13, 1816

My Dearest Margaret,

I hope Papa has received the note I sent yesterday telling him of my safe arrival. I had to write in haste as I had only a few minutes before the postbag was due to be taken, but this morning I can write at leisure.

Well, I must declare things are not quite as I expected them to be. Miss Burley’s grandmother, however, does live up to her reputation. I fear the granddame is no lady, but that is not to cast any aspersions on Miss Burley’s breeding, for she is not her grandmother by blood, but her grandfather’s second wife. I warrant there is a story to be had there. Miss Burley is reticent, but Marie and I are determined to have it from her.

I can trust you, can I not, not to let Papa read this letter? For I would not have him think badly of me. He would be mortified to hear me speak so ill of my hostess. But truly, Margaret, she fills me with such consternation that I have to unburden myself to someone, and you are safely far from here.

Lady Burley did not meet us when we arrived, much to Naomi’s (for we young ladies have put ourselves on first name terms) embarrassment, and kept us waiting fully half an hour for tea. She is a large, loud and florid woman who still favours the fashions of her youth – a tall grey wig and wide skirts in bright colours. Her accent is that of a Bristol merchant, if not a Bristol sailor, and she cannot moderate her voice, nor her opinions. Fortunately, Marie did not understand her idiom when she declared the poor girl had a “touch of the tar brush”, but I had to bury my face in my tea-cup so as not to answer her.

No doubt because my name is Howard, it was not the child of a poor country rector she was expecting in me, but a daughter of the Bishop of Ely and niece of the Duke of Norfolk. I was too astonished to correct her immediately, but then I saw the terror on Naomi’s face and kept my peace. It is fortunate that she has the habit of answering her own questions, for I did not know what to say when she interrogated me on my prospects as a wife for Sir Charles. The poor boy himself was in the room and was mortified beyond bearing. We had met briefly in the library before tea and were well-pleased with each other, I think, but now we do not dare meet each other’s eye.

Not even Lady Burley’s silent companion was safe from her attentions. She did not demur from telling us that Miss Martin was a poor orphan that she had taken in to relieve her uncle of the expense of her upkeep. But it seems she is well-pleased with her choice for she praised Miss Martin for not being the kind of young lady who sets her cap at every marriageable bachelor. By that I take it she means Sir Charles, for she made it clear to us that her grandchildren can expect nothing from her and must make their own fortunes through marriage.

Please forgive my intemperance, my dear Margaret. I am determined to be my usual, demure self anon and show my hostess the deference she deserves. I shall take as my guide my father’s wise teachings, and as my comfort, your satirical smile,

So please remember me, my dear heart,
As your ever sensible sister,
Elizabeth

 

Letter III

 

July 16, 1816

My Dearest Margaret,

I hope this letter finds you and Papa well. Here in Sussex, we have had three splendid days of sunshine and have spent every hour of it strolling about the grounds or playing at quoits and bowls, while Lady Burley naps beneath the elm trees. Without the lady herself to disturb us, Marie and I have finally prevailed upon Naomi to tell us her grandmother’s history in full, and I must say, it is much as I suspected.

Lady Burley was born a Miss Catherine Martin, the daughter of a Bristol merchant who made his fortune, I gather, through nefarious trade. (Naomi could tell us little for certain, but I suspect smuggling, and even, perhaps, the African Slave Trade.) As his only heir she came into all his fortune, and as a doting father who recognized in his daughter a good head for business, he was careful to frame the terms of his will so that she would retain control of her assets. Before he died however, he made sure to marry her to an associate of his who was equally wealthy. This Mr Evatt died without issue, so he too left all his fortune to Mrs Evatt and also under her sole control.

In the meantime, Sir Charles Burley, Naomi’s grandfather, had spent all his fortune on building Sandridge House, a truly magnificent edifice, but, as I suspected on first sighting it, well beyond the family’s means. It seems Sir Charles had mortgaged much of his land to the late Mr Martin, who passed the debt on to the late Mr Evatt, from whom it duly passed to his widow. Mrs Evatt, and here I am surmising, took a liking to Sir Charles’ title, and accepted it in exchange for the land titles she held against his debt.

But if Sir Charles thought that he had made a good bargain, he was much mistaken. He may have cleared several mortgages, but the new Lady Burley’s fortune could never fall into his hands, and so he and his descendants have become dependent on the lady’s generosity. From what I have observed of her, I am afraid that is in short supply. So it seems that Naomi’s brother has inherited his grandfather’s title and estate, but little of its income, as most of it is sequestered against still outstanding debts.

Naomi tells us that Lady Burley often declares that her money is her own to dispense as she will and makes it plain she begrudges every penny she spends on her grandchildren. She often reminds them that the Burleys are the last of three families who have expectations of her will and delights in keeping all of them guessing about its contents. In the meantime, she says she spends enough of her own money keeping up Sandridge House in a manner befitting her last husband’s memory, so his grandchildren have nothing to complain of. (But though she seems to keep a full complement of servants for her own comfort, she spends nothing on the house itself, for I declare my own room, though comfortable enough, has not been touched since the old king came to the throne.)

So rather than undertake to provide for her grandchildren’s future herself, Lady Burley insists that they make advantageous marriages. Yet she is reluctant to go to the expense of a London season, and instead she has been urging Naomi to bring home from school eligible young ladies of fortune for her brother’s benefit. You will gather from an earlier letter why Naomi has not been able to do so, but in order to satisfy her grandmother’s demands she has invited me and Marie and somewhat exaggerated our prospects.

I know dear Papa would urge me to disabuse Lady Burley immediately, but as I have more sympathy for Naomi than her grandmother, I do not think I should. This little deception will do no harm, as neither Marie nor I have any prospect of marrying Sir Charles.

Ah, there is the post boy’s bell. Give my love to dear Papa

Your loving sister,
Elizabeth

 

Letter IV

 

July 20, 1816

My Dearest Papa,

I trust you and Margaret have been receiving my letters as I have had none from either of you since I arrived at Sandridge House. But the post being what it is I will not trouble myself with any misgivings for a good sen’night as yet.

Let me reassure you Papa that I am faring well and that my hostess delights in our company as she has a great love of youth. She keeps a close eye on all her young charges, but as she herself enjoys fresh air she will have us all out in it whenever the weather permits. In the mornings we take long walks about the grounds which are extensive and pleasing to the eye and the spirit. Of an afternoon we often play at quoits or bowls under the shade of the elms while our hostess looks on. On occasion we young ladies even tempt Sir Charles to leave the sanctuary of the library and join us.

Of an evening we sit in my lady’s favourite room, the Blue Salon, and play whist or piquet, and as, with Lady Burley, we ladies make five, one of us will read aloud or play upon the fortepiano.

Being the lone man of the household, Sir Charles does not linger long over his wine after dinner but joins us anon for coffee. Being a young man of serious disposition, he does not deign to join us at cards but will read or turn the pages for the musician.

Lady Burley retires early and so perforce do we young ladies, but you will not be surprised to know that we often gather in one room or another to talk over the day’s events as young girls will. I shall not weary you with all our girlish confidences. Let it only be said that the object of Sir Charles’ eye is often on our agenda.

I am afraid my dear Papa, that is all the news to be had from our uneventful and peaceful life here in Sandridge House. I trust this letter will find you in equal tranquillity.

I remain,
Your most loving and dutiful daughter,
Elizabeth

 

Letter V

 

July 22, 1816

My Dearest Margaret,

Please do not tell me that Papa has taken my flattery of Sir Charles too seriously. It was meant as a pleasantry for his amusement only. I thought he would know me better than to think my head could be so easily turned. Or is it you who wishes to believe that I am smitten?

No, dear sister, I have not lied when I describe Sir Charles as handsome, for that he is – tall, with pleasing features, blue eyes and golden curls. And, yes, when first we met, we were well pleased with each other, and if you promise not to tell Papa I shall confess how it came about.

It was in the library, which I entered unexpectedly having mistook my maid’s instructions on how to find the Blue Salon for tea. When I saw Chapman’s Odyssey on the shelf, I immediately took it down, opened it, and with my nose between its covers made for the window for light to read it by, only to find myself flying through the air and landing on Sir Charles who was dozing in a chair, his feet sprawled before him. It is as well that Homer fell between us to defend my modesty, for we came nose to nose.

I can vouch for my being well pleased with Sir Charles, for he was politeness itself, if somewhat flustered as one could only expect under such circumstances. As for Sir Charles – I can now say with certainty that it is not only embarrassment at her ladyship’s indiscretion that has kept his eye from mine. If Sir Charles’ eye falls anywhere it is only on one face – the enchanting face of Miss Arianne Martin. But, whether from modesty or aversion I cannot tell, she studiously avoids his gaze.

I must confess, it was some days before I discovered his true feelings. Having met Sir Charles in the library, I thought we shared a love of reading, but it was only after several interrupted conversations with him that I recognised that our commonality goes no further. Sir Charles is a romantic. If he recites poetry, it is Scott or Wordsworth rather than Pope or Donne. If he reads Richardson, it is Lovelace rather than Grandison he takes as his model. He longs to dare all for the love of a Clarissa and chafes under the restrictions Lady Burley’s miserliness lays on him.

For some days I thought he was paying his attentions to me, but then I observed it was only when Arianne was close by that he was at his most attentive, and then always with one eye in her direction.

But piqued as I was to find myself so ill-used, I cannot say that I blame him, for, if there was ever a young lady worthy of being the heroine of a romance, it is Arianne. She is of a truly ethereal beauty, with a pale complexion, grey eyes, and thick chestnut hair that will not stay in its modest chignon, but escape to frame her perfect oval face with soft curls. Her manner is reserved and self-effacing, and she seems inured to Lady Burley’s vulgarity. Whenever I can, I prise her away from her ladyship’s side and bring her into our walks and games. I have tried several times to draw her out, but she tends to grow agitated when pressed and will say little about herself. What I have learnt of her, I have had from Naomi.

Arianne is the daughter of one of Lady Burley’s Martin cousins, also a merchant’s son. Her mother was a gentlewoman who married her father for love, for which transgression both were disowned by their families. Her father made a modest living as a clerk, but after his wife died young, he sent Arianne to a school where she was accepted as an articled student. She tells me she was happy there and made friends among the students who often invited her to their homes for the holidays, but even as she was telling me this her eyes misted over and she suddenly heard Lady Burley calling for her. I own, I cannot make her out.

But if Arianne will not be Sir Charles’ heroine, there is another who is all too willing. If my conversations with Sir Charles are often interrupted, it is entirely by her efforts. But try as she might, Marie has had no luck in attracting Sir Charles’ eye. At first she was jealous of me. Even to the point that, one afternoon when we had enticed Sir Charles from the library to join us in playing bowls, one of the balls was dropped perilously close to my foot. Naomi persuaded Marie to apologise to me, and since then I have been her confidante, enduring many a long night listening to her woes.

Lady Burley is not entirely unaware of the state of affairs, but, as she intends Sir Charles to marry one of us, she is well amused, and encourages Marie in her efforts. And if she sees how often Sir Charles’ eye falls on Arianne, she rarely comments on it before us, but I have often seen her give him a stern look if she catches him at it. Perhaps, after all, it is fear of Lady Burley’s displeasure that keeps Arianne’s eyes so modestly downcast.

And so, for all the pleasantness of our surroundings there are often many cross faces to be seen. Oh, my dearest sister, how I long for the peace and quiet of the Rectory!

I remain,
Your wistful sister,
Elizabeth

 

Letter VI

 

July 23, 1816

My Dearest Papa,

I am as well as ever here, but the quiet monotony of our days was relieved today by an unexpected visitor, Mr Robert Evatt, the nephew of Lady Burley’s first husband. He is a very personable young man, and I rather believe a favourite with his aunt. He spent only the one day with us, not even staying the night, but said he was in the country on business, and could not pass so close to his aunt without stopping by to see her.

As his visit was to be so short, Mr Evatt asked our indulgence in accompanying him on his favourite walk in the country, a long and vigorous walk up to the top of Kestrel Hill. I can understand why he likes it so for at the summit one feels the bracing sea air in all its glory, and a wonderful view of the coastline can be had from Eastbourne to Seaford.

Mr Evatt stayed only long enough to take tea with us before leaving, but he relieved our chagrin by promising to return within a week with two friends who will be visiting the country, Lord George Percy, the son of a Marquis, he tells us, and his cousin, Sir William Marshall. Needless to say, Lady Burley and we young ladies are much excited by this prospect, and it will be welcome masculine company for Sir Charles.

Dearest Papa, despite all this excitement, I look every day for the postboy’s arrival, hoping for a letter from you or Margaret, and pray that you are well.

I remain, as ever,
Your loving daughter,
Elizabeth

 

Letter VII

 

July 24, 1816

My Dearest Margaret,

You will gather from my letter to Papa the bare facts of Mr Evatt’s visit, but it is only to you that I can confide its true significance. I daresay you would tell me I am being foolish to give an acquaintance of barely one day such consequence, but the heart does not perceive time as the head does.

Shall I begin at the beginning? Yesterday morning, Marie, Naomi and I had set out to walk to the folly on the other side of the lake when we heard our names being called and turned to find a breathless footman holding his wig in place as he ran towards us. We had been summoned to return immediately as we had a visitor. When Naomi heard his name she hesitated, nor did she hurry her steps to follow the footman. Marie and I were anxious to meet this person who would relieve the tedium of our day, so we demanded to know why Naomi was so reluctant to return. She told us that Mr Evatt was a cause of contention in the family. Lady Burley intended him as a husband for Naomi, for he was her favourite nephew and exceedingly rich. But Sir Charles would not have it as Mr Evatt was in trade, a vintner in fact, and no suitable match for the sister of a Baronet. As for Naomi, she said she likes Mr Evatt well enough, but not well enough to go against her brother for his sake.

Of course, Marie and I did not believe Naomi’s protestations of indifference and were convinced that she liked him much better than she let on, so we were doubly anxious to meet him, and hurried on, forcing Naomi to keep up with us.

Mr Evatt was taking tea with his aunt in the Blue Salon when we arrived, and although he greeted Naomi cordially, I own I did not see more than cousinly affection in his manner towards her. Marie was gratified that he greeted her with a few words of French and she ogled him openly. He greeted me last and my already favourable impression of him was redoubled. I cannot say he is as handsome a man as Sir Charles, but his manner is just as gentlemanly. He is tall and well made with dark, straight hair perhaps beginning to recede, but there was such a look of good humour and intelligence in his eye that it overcame his plain looks. Can I say I was smitten already? I cannot be sure, but I know that after his first smile I studied his every word and look.

Not that I was always pleased with what I saw, as there was much to perplex me. He flattered Lady Burley so shamelessly, and she cooed so to hear it, that I wondered if he had her will in mind, but then he turned such an open, honest countenance to me, that I thought perhaps it was but a game he and his aunt played, that teasing one often sees in good-humoured families. He certainly teased her with the identities and fortunes of his two friends, playing at being in two minds whether or not to give in to her pleas and bring them to Sandridge House, not promising to return with them until he was mounting his horse to leave.

Although Lady Burley wanted to keep him by her for the duration of the visit, it was he who proposed a long walk, and he who asked if Arianne would be allowed to join us. Her ladyship hesitated but she could deny him nothing and happily agreed. By then Sir Charles had joined us, glowering at Mr Evatt. He had refused to walk with us, but as soon as he learnt Arianne was coming, he declared he would come after all.

The walk being long and vigorous, the party began to draw apart, and while Naomi urged her brother on ahead, Mr Evatt fell behind with Arianne. Many an anxious look did Sir Charles turn on them and I own I often turned, too. Both their faces were grave, and they walked more intent on their quiet conversation than the beauty of the landscape. Then a scrap of Arianne’s voice reached me on the wind and I caught the words, “You cannot ask that of me.” I turned to find them stopped, Arianne trying to pull away, while Mr Evatt held her arm. Finally, with a violent shaking of her head, Arianne broke away and ran back towards the house. Mr Evatt seemed in two minds whether to follow her, but it was Sir Charles who hurtled down the hill after her, calling Mr Evatt an ungentlemanly name as he passed him.

I thought it best to avert my eyes and walked on, but with my heart in a turmoil I could not fathom. But before I could reach Marie and Naomi, Mr Evatt had caught me up, and I found I did not have the power to rebuff him, nor to begin some inconsequential conversation. At last he began to speak about Arianne. He asked if I thought her happy. He said he was anxious for her and wondered if Sandridge House was the best place for her. He knew his aunt could be difficult, but Arianne had no other friends to turn to if Lady Burley should cast her off. And then he stopped so that I had to turn to face him, and he said, “Miss Howard, I have only known you a short time, but Miss Martin tells me you are a kind and sensible young woman. May I implore you to be a friend to her? She is in great need of one.”

There was such sincerity and compassion in his look that I could not deny him, and I realise now that it was at that moment that my heart was lost.

By then we had reached the summit of Kestrel Hill and those of us remaining walked back together so there was no more occasion for private conversation between us.

Back at Sandridge House, Arianne did not join us for tea, claiming a headache, but as we stood in the hall while Mr Evatt made his farewells, Arianne ran down the stairs to take his hand. She spoke only a few quiet words, but they were enough to draw a warm smile from Mr Evatt and I am sure I saw a note pass between them, which he quickly pocketed.

So you see, Margaret, what a quandary I am in. My heart tells me Mr Evatt is a good and honest man, but my head tells me not to take him at face value. How else can I take his dealings with Arianne, except as a lover who is urging her to run away with him? And why would he be so secretive if his intentions were honourable? I cannot see any true obstacles to his openly asking for her hand. In the eyes of the world, they would be abundantly well suited. Surely Lady Burley would not raise any substantial objections to their marriage. Or is Mr Evatt still hoping to marry Naomi, while not giving Arianne up?

Oh my dearest, how I long for your arm about me, and your shoulder on which to rest my brow, for in this war between my head and my heart, my head is claiming victory, and my heart is breaking.

Your own sister,
Elizabeth

 

Letter VIII

 

July 25, 1816

My Dearest Margaret,

Please do not take my last letter to heart. In fact I would rather you burnt it without reading it, but perchance it is already too late to ask that. I do not know what came over me to write such nonsense, to fancy myself in love with one I had only known for a few hours. That foolish letter was written by candlelight in the early hours of the morning after I lay tossing and turning sleeplessly all night.

I had schooled myself to write a disinterested letter to Papa and thought even then it was all just a girlish fancy, but then Naomi and Marie came to my room, as is their wont, and talked and talked of Mr Evatt and the more they talked the more agitated I became, so that, when I lay down, my head was buzzing like a beehive. I felt that if I did not express my feelings I would never sleep again.

I should have burnt the letter myself and saved you the expense of receiving it, but my maid, wishing to do me a service while I dozed in the afternoon, put my letters in the postbag for me.

It is all over now, my dear sister, I promise. For all its nonsense, writing that letter did me good and the foolishness has dissipated like a bad dream in the morning light. I thank God that only my dearest confidante has read it.

So, my dearest Margaret, I am my old self again,

And ever your level-headed sister,
Elizabeth

 

Letter IX

 

July 28, 1816

My Dearest Margaret,

Yesterday’s postbag brought me three letters from you and Papa and I am glad to read that you are both keeping well. How I enjoyed reading Papa’s news of the parishioners’ doings and how his garden does. And what is this he tells me about the new curate, the new unmarried curate? What do you think of him, Margaret? I gather from Papa’s letters that he is not entirely indifferent to you. Have I perhaps done you a good turn after all in coming to Sandridge House this summer? If poor Mr Blanchard were made to choose between us he might have felt obliged to choose the elder of us rather than the better.

Your letters came as a welcome relief, sister dear, for here at Sandridge House we are all on edge in anticipation of Mr Evatt’s return with his distinguished friends. Marie and Naomi are having their hair trimmed and their nails polished, and turning out their every gown to be mended or altered. Lady Burley has set the servants to turning the house upside down and every room is being cleaned from top to bottom. Arianne is kept busy taking down lists of provisions and letters to the local traders demanding their best produce at the lowest prices.

And whenever poor Arianne has a moment to herself, she is set upon by Sir Charles who, I believe, has the same suspicions of Mr Evatt’s intentions as I have. Only this morning I found them together in the garden and, to rescue Arianne, I said that Lady Burley was asking for her. She shot me a grateful glance before escaping and I was left to listen to Sir Charles’ harangue on what Lovelace would do in his position. “He would not let the woman he loved be wooed and won by another. Why, he would call the other man out and carry off the woman and win her heart for himself.” I tried to reason with him, to make him understand that a woman’s heart cannot be won by force, that, in the end, Lovelace might have possessed Clarissa, but he did not have her heart. But Sir Charles was deaf to my arguments and rushed off with a curse. Regrettably Marie has taken a new tack in her pursuit of Sir Charles, for I overheard them in animated conversation this afternoon on the subject of literature, and she was encouraging him in his foolishness.

It is as well that Lady Burley keeps him as close she does, so that although he might have Lovelace’s intentions he does not have his means, for to tell you true, dear sister, I have grave fears over what he intends to do.

Not that Lady Burley does anything to ease Sir Charles’ anxieties. Since Mr Evatt’s visit, she has been full of her dear Robin, teasing Sir Charles with his independence, claiming that he has more coin to his name than either of his titled friends, that Sir Charles would regret it if he chose a title for his sister’s husband over a man who could rescue him from debt. Nor are we ladies immune from her teasing, for she has been telling Sir Charles, right before our eyes, that, rather than mooning about (and here I take it she means over Arianne) he had best make a move and choose between me and Marie before we are snapped up by her titled guests, for they are always on the lookout for rich heiresses. We all squirm in our seats, but there is nothing we can say, for Lady Burley says all this with laughter so that we cannot take offence.

What an irony it is, for now I long for that peaceful tedium we enjoyed before Mr Robert Evatt ever showed his face at Sandridge House.

Your loving sister,
Elizabeth

 

Letter X

 

July 30, 1816

My Dearest Papa,

I trust this letter finds you and Margaret well. How does Mrs Arbuckle’s cow? Has she been eating your marigolds again? Being town bred, Lady Burley does not know much of gardening, but she does love bright colours, so the garden here is like a Persian rug in this season. Today, however, she ordered flowers by the armful to be brought into the house to greet our much-anticipated aristocratic guests, who arrived at last this afternoon.

And what an odd pair they are, odd, that is, in that they are so unlike. Lord George Percy is all flamboyance and good cheer. If he were born in an earlier age, he would have been bewigged and powdered, decked out in a red brocade jacket and silver shoes. But in our plainer age he makes do with embroidered waistcoats and the finest of silk stocks. He took my Lady Burley’s rough manners without a demur, and he treats her like the greatest lady of the court. Sir William Marshall, his cousin, in contrast, favours plain dress and says barely a word, but glowers at us from beneath dark brows. His cousin jollies him along and occasionally I spy a grin trying to emerge from his lips, but he quickly swallows it. Mr Evatt is as amiable as ever, finding great amusement in Lord George, while trying to show Sir William in his best light.

Lord George is as gallant with the younger ladies as he is with the eldest, and, as you can imagine, we are all well-pleased with him. Lady Burley encourages him in his attentions to us, for she is determined to marry us all off before the summer is over, although I do believe she has singled Lord George out for her granddaughter.

I must close now and be about my toilette, for Lady Burley has ordered a sumptuous dinner for tonight and I would not let her down.

My love to Margaret,

As ever,
Your dearest daughter,
Elizabeth

 

Letter XI

 

July 31, 1816

My Dearest Margaret,

We ladies are quiet today as the gentleman have gone riding and left us to our own devices. Marie and Naomi are cross, but are making the most of their time in having their hair dressed in preparation for this evening. Lady Burley is taking her afternoon nap, leaving Arianne free to take the air. And I take this opportunity to write to you at length, for although our visitors have only been here one night, already there is much for me to ponder on.

As I told Papa, Lord George is most flamboyant, and having been schooled I daresay by Mr Evatt in how best to handle Lady Burley, he flatters and flirts with her shamelessly. At dinner he was seated on her right, and kept her highly amused throughout, so that Naomi, whom her grandmother had carefully placed at his side, was at first forced to try to make conversation with Sir William on her right. Sir William however, was quite stupid and said barely a word, so she had to make a third in Lady Burley’s conversation after all. By the end of the evening, Lord George had even that generally glum young lady beaming and blushing.

At the other end of the table, I had to endure Sir Charles and Marie in lively discussion of French literature, passion and seduction. I tried once to suggest that she moderate her talk, but she hissed at me that I was no longer her teacher and paid me no further heed. On my other side was Mr Evatt, who, for most of the evening, was distracted by his friends across the table and Naomi between them. It was some time before either of us felt easy enough to make conversation, and then it was they who were our subject.

To gauge his feelings on the matter, I asked Mr Evatt what prospects Lady Burley had of securing Lord George for Naomi. He replied that many a fond mamma had dangled her marriageable daughter before his eyes, but none had caught him yet. What then was Lord George looking for in a wife? I asked. Is he hoping to fall in love? Mr Evatt was amused. Like many men in his position, he said, Lord George could afford no such luxury. By this, of course, I took it that Lord George must marry for money, not love, so I put the same question to Mr Evatt. Mr Evatt demurred, saying only, with a smile, that he would marry when the time was right. I think he might have said more, but at that moment Lady Burley rose from the table and we ladies followed her out.

The gentleman did not linger long over their wine, and as soon as they joined us, Mr Evatt asked again after Arianne, for she had not come down to dinner, Lady Burley claiming as an excuse Arianne’s usual headache. I strongly suspect Lady Burley had forbidden her to join us, for it had been obvious all afternoon that her beauty had the power to distract the gentlemen’s attention from we other ladies’ more prosaic charms. However, her ladyship could not deny Mr Evatt again without risking his displeasure so sent a footman to enquire if she was recovered enough to join us.

Arianne entered so quietly that we hardly knew she was there for Lord George had managed to tease out of Lady Burley something of her maritime antecedents, and she had us all enthralled in her tales of smugglers and wreckers.

It was only when I turned to take another cup of coffee from a footman that I saw Arianne seated by the wall, sharing a couch with Sir William. She sat well apart from him with longing eyes on Lady Burley’s circle while, I was much surprised to see, Sir William talked and talked. I felt much sympathy for her, for it seems to me Sir William must be one of those tiresome men who says not a word except to rattle on about some pet subject and bore his listener to death. I thought to rescue her, but Mr Evatt held me back, and it was he who approached them. At his request, it seemed, Sir William left her side and Mr Evatt took his place, and again engaged her in serious conversation, his expression all solicitude and concern, hers all frankness and confidence. I turned away then, for I had seen enough.

Oh Margaret, I have tried to put the other night’s foolishness behind me, but in his presence, I am back in the same predicament. When he speaks to me, he seems so sincere and to like me, yet then I watch him with Arianne and see he is just as sincere. He does not have the air of a cad, but how else can I judge him? I wonder, too, why he has brought his friends to Sandridge House. Could it be that he truly hopes that Lord George will marry Naomi and relieve him of that obligation? Yet he does not seem to think it likely. Or could it be that Lord George is there only to distract Lady Burley while he furthers a scheme of his own?

My only relief these days it that somehow, I have displeased Marie and Naomi and they no longer come to my room at night, so now I can put my head down earlier. Not that it avails me much for again I slept ill last night and my head aches with all this speculation. I think I shall put this letter in the postbag and then take a turn about the park to clear it.

Keep well my dear sister, and kiss Papa for me.

Your loving sister,
Elizabeth

 

Letter XII

 

July 31, 1816

My Dearest Margaret,

I know I wrote to you only this afternoon, but I cannot sleep. My head and heart are too full and so I must write to distract myself if nothing else.

I ended my last letter, did I not, saying that I would take a turn about the park after putting the letter in the postbag, and so I did, taking a book with me to a secluded bench that I know by the shrubbery. But as I approached, I saw that it was occupied by Arianne, who was crying pitifully. If I had seen her thus only a few days ago I would not have hesitated to rush to comfort her and give her my shoulder to lean on, but now I hesitated. Whether it was out of respect for her solitude, or simple jealousy, I am not sure, but when I turned to walk away, I tripped over a stray tree root and fell over, unintentionally crying out. Arianne heard me and, to my shame, came to my assistance, her face and nose still streaming.

She sat me down on the bench and while she knelt to look at my ankle, I offered her my clean handkerchief so that we both laughed despite ourselves. “Now,” I said, “you know why I am crying, but what ails you so sorely?” She would not say and so I pressed her. “Is it one of our guests, for you were well enough before they came?” Again she did not answer. “Is there one of them that you love?” Now she nodded almost imperceptively. “Yet this love grieves you so. Is there no hope of marriage?” “No,” she said with the inflection of despair, “not of marriage. Who would offer a girl in my position marriage? Declarations of love, perhaps, but marriage…?” Then suddenly shocked at what she had said she pressed the crumpled handkerchief into my hand. “Please do not repeat what I have said, Miss Howard. I would not have you think ill of him. He means well but he has no choice in the matter.” And with those words her tears were renewed and she ran off.

Half an hour later, two footmen arrived with her ladyship’s own chair and I was carried back to the house in grand style.

Tonight at dinner, Arianne joined us and was given my seat from last night, beside Mr Evatt, while I sat next to Sir William. I felt obliged, though reluctant, to make conversation with him, and found him not as dull as I had expected. In fact he is quite a sensible man and can even be amusing. He told me about his family – he is the third son and has two younger sisters – and something of his business in Parliament where he is a member of the House of Commons. But sometimes I had the impression that his conversation was not meant for my ears only, for while he talked his eyes were often directed across the table at Arianne, and occasionally her eyes lifted to meet his with that same look of longing I had seen last night. I looked to see if Mr Evatt was jealous, but he looked on with solicitude. What was I to make of this? One who did not confound me was Sir Charles, who spent the evening glowering at Mr Evatt, giving scant attention to Marie, who could barely contain her fury. Meanwhile Lady Burley and Naomi, under Lord George’s spell, were oblivious to the rest of us.

In the drawing room, we ladies were uncharacteristically dull, all of us, no doubt, with our minds on the men still at board with their wine – Lady Burley dozing by the fire, for she has been keeping uncharacteristically late hours with our guests, Arianne silent and distracted over her needlework, and Marie and Naomi with their heads together. I pretended to read, but my head was buzzing. What was I to make of what I had seen? There was only one conclusion I could come to, yet still my heart rebelled, and would not believe what was so plain to the head.

When the men joined us in the drawing room, they took up their already accustomed places, Lord George with Lady Burley and Naomi close to the fire, Sir William on the couch with Arianne, Sir Charles, with a look of defiance towards Arianne, of which she was oblivious, sat by Marie, and Mr Evatt joined me. He would have made light conversation, but I could not return the same and asked him petulantly why he did not sit by Arianne himself, rather than allow Sir William to. Mr Evatt was abashed. “Miss Howard,” he said, “I own my behaviour towards Miss Martin might seem somewhat questionable, but I assure you that my intentions are honourable and I have only her best interests at heart.” “And Sir William, are his intentions honourable?” “I can vouch for him.” “Then why,” I asked, “did I find Miss Martin in tears today, despairing that the man she loved could never offer her marriage? What does he offer instead, Mr Evatt? What nefarious plan have you become a party to? Is this what you call honourable?” I must have touched a nerve, for he was angry at last, saying, “If you were a man, I would have called you out for less, but since you are a woman, I cannot defend myself from such an accusation.” And with that he left the room. And I too had to retreat to my room before I burst into tears.

Oh, my dear Margaret, if only I had you here to comfort me, and Papa to advise me. But, now at least that I have written all this I can perhaps lie down and sleep for a few hours.

Yours as ever,
Elizabeth

 

Letter XIII

 

August 1, 1816

My Dearest Margaret,

I received your letter by this morning’s postbag and felt the sting of conscience that I have been so embroiled in my own affairs and given you so little thought. But I am ever so glad to hear your news. Papa speaks highly of him and I am pleased to know that you genuinely love Mr Blanchard, for I would not have you marry just to please Papa. I look forward to meeting him. Perhaps Lady Burley might accept your engagement as sufficient excuse to cut my visit short, for I long to come home.

We are somewhat forlorn today, for our guests took their leave this morning. Lord George was his usual gallant self, kissing our hands and making pretty speeches, especially to Naomi, on how he would never forget us. Sir William lingered over Arianne’s hand, while she barely met his eye and blushed prettily. When he came to me, he looked as though there was something he wanted to say, but then thought better of it. Mr Evatt left me to last then held me back as the others went outside. He apologised for losing his temper and reiterated his good intentions. And though he looked at me with tender expectation, I could not answer him, and let him go unsatisfied.

With him gone, though, for all the turmoil he caused me, I am utterly desolate. Marie and Naomi have cut me out of their circle. They are always with their heads together, whispering in French, which, as you know, I never quite mastered. Arianne was never one for making idle conversation and now is more silent than ever. And Lady Burley keeps

What an odd thing has just happened! I am writing this letter in the library and Sir Charles has just left me. He came in here, in boots and riding coat, looking for the notebook in which he copies inspirational passages. “Ah, Miss Howard,” he exclaimed, “I am glad to have seen you. I do not blame you for your caution and timidity, which becomes a lady such as yourself, but for a gentleman, for a man, it is reprehensible. I am determined to act, and you will see, Miss Howard, what a real man is made of.” And without another word he left. I have just heard him ride away, seen off, as if to war, by Naomi and Marie. What can he mean? I do hope he is not planning anything foolish.

There is the postboy’s bell.

Again, my dearest Margaret, my most hearty congratulations. Kiss Papa for me, and extend Mr Blanchard greetings from his future sister.

I remain as ever,
Your Elizabeth

 

Letter XIV

 

August 3, 1816

Dear Papa,

I write in haste for the house is in an uproar. The most terrible thing has happened – Marie and Arianne have been abducted. I cannot write more now and I should not even be telling you this for Lady Burley is afraid of scandal, but I thought it were best you knew why I cannot come home, or perhaps even write, for several days.

Do not fret for me, for I am quite well,

As ever,
Your Elizabeth

 

Letter XV

 

August 5, 1816

My Dearest Margaret,

Lady Burley has taken a draught and gone to bed so at last I have some time to myself to write to you. With Arianne gone I have become Lady Burley’s constant companion for she must have someone by her at all times to listen to her angry rants, or fetch her smelling salts. For the granddame alternates between bouts of rage and attacks of hysterics. The anger I had expected, but the hysterics have amazed me. I should have thought someone of her manner and experience to be more resilient, even under these circumstances.

I do not know what she fears for most – the girls’ well-being or their good names – or her own reputation, or even retribution from their families. But mostly there is one terror that predominates – the cost. Everyday she asks if a ransom has been demanded and frets about how much compensation she might be called upon to pay, or how much she might have to lay out in bribes to keep off scandal.

Meanwhile, Sir Charles has gone to Bath, and Naomi keeps to her room, so it is I who has to take charge of the household.

Oh dear, I forget, I am in medias res and must take you back to the beginning – is it really only two days ago?

On Saturday morning I woke late, as I had resorted to a draught myself on Friday night and given my maid instructions not to wake me too early. So when I came down to breakfast Marie and Naomi had already left on their walk, though I was surprised to hear that Arianne had joined them as she so rarely did unless I invited her. But by luncheon they had not returned and Lady Burley was getting cross when we heard a cry from the gardeners. Naomi was approaching on the back of a farmer’s mule, her clothes torn, her shoes muddied and she quite distraught.

You can imagine our fears as she told her tale. While the three young ladies were walking through a copse at the edge of the grounds, two ruffians had set upon them and bundled Marie and Arianne into a carriage and made off with them. Naomi was only saved because she had caught her dress on a twig and fallen behind. When she heard the commotion, she hid and saw the abduction from her hiding place. She then ran to the nearest farmhouse to get help. Since then she has been prostrate and has not ventured from her room.

Naomi could give us few clues to the abductors’ identities or motives. All she could tell us was that the men wore scarves over their faces and their hats low so she could not see their faces. Their four-horse chariot was driven by a third man also masked.

Sir Charles, much to my surprise, was most masterful and decisive, advising his grandmother and taking charge of the search, for her ladyship would not hear of calling in the constables. He took every spare man on the estate and they were out all that day. They found the carriage’s tracks, they reported, but lost them after only a few yards. They were out all day yesterday as well, but with even less success. This morning Sir Charles left for Bath to inform Mrs Llewellyn and thus Marie’s family.

There has been no news of them for three full days now. For all we know Arianne and Marie might be – oh I dread to think what might have become of them. At times I am almost grateful for the demands Lady Burley puts on me for it keeps me from brooding too much. Lady Burley and Sir Charles prefer to believe the abductors are local criminals after money, but I cannot agree with them. Some demand for ransom would have come by now if that were the case. No, I think this abduction was aimed at one end and one end only. My strongest suspicions might have fallen on Sir Charles, were it not that he has been with us all along. There is only one other party I can blame. Naomi described three men in a chariot exactly like the one our guests departed in.

You will tell me my conclusions are absurd, but what else can I think? At least if they are in those hands, I can hope that they are safe from the worst fate – although Society might not think it so.

I feel so helpless. Would that I could be out searching, chasing them down astride a fast horse, but as a woman I am a prisoner of this house, my only contribution being to order gruel for our invalids.

I will write again as soon as I can,
Your Elizabeth

 

 

 

Letter XVI

 

August 6, 1816

My Dearest Margaret,

There is hope at last, but today, more than ever I feel my helplessness. But let me begin at the beginning again, before I get myself into a tangle.

I had hardly put down my pen last night when there was a great commotion in the hall and a footman pounded on my door begging me to come quickly. Two men were in the hall and as soon as I saw them, I cried out, “What have you done with them?”, for they were Mr Evatt and Sir William. “Done with whom?” said Mr Evatt. “What are you saying? We came as soon as we heard, for we were about to take rooms at the inn in the village when they told us.” By then I had reached them and Sir William took me by the shoulders. “Have you heard anything? Is there any news?” They were both so pale with shock and horror that I began to hope that I might be wrong and drew them into the library so we could talk in private.

“Do you swear to me,” I demanded before I would begin, “do you swear you did not take them?” Sir William began to protest but Mr Evatt took my hand, looked into my eyes, and said, “I swear, by all I hold dear, we have had nothing to do with this.” I could not bear to doubt him any longer, and fell to weeping like a child so that he had to hold me in his arms to comfort me, until Sir William brought me to my senses and demanded to hear the whole story. When I was through, Mr Evatt urged Sir William to tell his part.

It was Sir William’s sisters who were Arianne’s special friends at school and he met her when they brought her home for the holidays. Sir William has been in love with Arianne from her first visit and they have been engaged for two years, but when Sir William announced his engagement to his father, the Earl was incensed and threatened to disown him if he even dared mention Arianne’s name again. Thereafter Arianne was forbidden the house and his father even had her dismissed from the school. But Sir William has remained true to Arianne and would have married her and risked his father’s wrath. It was she, with the example of her own parents before her, who broke off the engagement when she came to Sandridge House and refused to write to him.

Mr Evatt then took up the story. When Sir William found out through his cousin that Mr Evatt had entrée to Sandridge House, he begged his help to see Arianne. But as Mr Evatt had only just met Sir William, and knew all too well Arianne’s position, he resolved to see Arianne alone first and ascertain her wishes before proceeding. He swore he would never have introduced Sir William into the house without Arianne’s permission, and was always careful to ensure she was not compromised while he was there.

With heartfelt emotion, Sir William said that seeing Arianne anew had convinced him that he could never give her up, and so finally pledged that he would not rest until they were married. He and Mr Evatt had been to Bristol to see Arianne’s guardian, and to London to see his solicitors and his father, and to procure a marriage licence which he showed me.

I think I almost wept again with relief, but then I was brought up short. If Marie and Arianne were not with Sir William and Mr Evatt, then we knew not in whose hands they were. In fact we had reason to harbour even greater fears for them. Sir William would have ridden out then and there, but it was near midnight. Only Mr Evatt was thinking clearly. “Naomi!” he suddenly exclaimed. “If she described my carriage as being the one used by the abductors, she was lying. What other lies has she been telling?”

And so, despite the hour, we roused Naomi from her bed and Mr Evatt set to questioning her with such vigour that she finally broke down and told us everything. It was Sir Charles who had arranged the abduction, instigated by Marie and his sister. It was they who persuaded Sir Charles to act on all his talk and carry Arianne off. They worked out the details of the plan. Inspired by Lady Burley’s talk, they proposed he hire smugglers who would take Arianne, together with Naomi who was to go as chaperone, and keep them in their lair while Sir Charles played the innocent hero at home. When the time was right, he was to carry Arianne away to Gretna Green. However, their real plan had not been for Arianne to be taken, but Naomi and Marie, who hoped thus to persuade Sir Charles to fall in love and marry her. But it seems Arianne had some inkling of their plans and followed them that morning. As they were approaching the rendezvous, Naomi fell behind when her dress got caught, while Marie, eager to see her plan underway, ran on ahead. When she met the ruffians, Arianne cried out to them to let her go, and it was she who was taken rather than Naomi. Despite what she told us, Naomi heard the commotion, but saw nothing. She assumed that Sir Charles was not going to Bath at all but was on his way to Gretna Green. We could well imagine that he would not go without Arianne, and Marie would not let him go without her.

So at first light this morning, Mr Evatt and Sir William set out to follow Sir Charles, and I have been left to tell all to Lady Burley. I wonder if her reaction will be rage or prostration.

Please assure Papa that despite the excitement I am quite well, and I will own to you, my dear Margaret, that I feel better than ever. I think you will understand why.

As ever,
Your dearest sister,
Elizabeth

 

Letter XVII

 

August 7, 1816

Dear Miss Howard,

At last I can write to you with good news. Our fugitives have been found. This afternoon we caught up with Sir Charles and Miss Deschamps at an inn in Basingstoke. And I do believe he was relieved to see us, while she was furious. It seems that while the good lady had managed to prise him away from Miss Martin, she had not yet persuaded him to marry her, and rather than rushing north to Scotland, he has been tarrying in Hampshire.

We found Miss Martin last night alone in Tonbridge Wells. But I am sure you will agree that it would be best if it were generally believed that the young ladies were never parted. Enough damage has been done to their reputations already.

Miss Martin is well and happy and I enclose a letter to you from her.

My dear Miss Howard, I apologise with all my heart that my conduct in this matter has grieved you and I hope now that you feel you can have complete confidence in me. Forgive my boldness if I should declare that you are the last person in the world I would want to grieve and one whose good opinion I would cherish above all others.

Your most devoted servant,
Robert Evatt

 

Letter XVIII

 

August 7, 1816

My Dear Miss Howard,

William tells me that you know our whole history, so I do not need to tell you how happy I was to see him and hear his news. He also tells me how strong you have been despite bearing so much of the vexation this whole matter has brought on Sandridge House. I cannot tell you how much it grieves me that you have been so distressed on my account. There were so many times when I wanted to return your kindness with my confidence, but I did not want to burden you with troubles for which I could see no resolution. I am afraid I was so taken up with my own concerns I did not see how you were being affected.

And perhaps I should also bear some responsibility for this last episode, for if I had been more forthright with Sir Charles he might not have gone to this extreme. When I told him I was engaged to another he withdrew his suit, albeit with some reluctance, and Marie was able to persuade him to continue with her alone. Perhaps, too, if I had come to you with my suspicions of what Naomi and Marie were about, we might have found a way to stop them. It was foolhardy of me to have acted alone, but it was on the spur of the moment, as was my attempt at saving Marie from what at the time I believed was a genuine abduction, for the smugglers were playing their part very lifelike. Marie was furious, but as Sir Charles had expected to find me rather than her, she could say nothing at the time, but took the first opportunity to be rid of me.

Mr Evatt has also told me how much he admires the fortitude you have shown throughout. I hope you will forgive my interference, but I detected in his speech more that plain admiration and I pressed him further. He admits to having tender feelings for you, but believes that, as the son of a mere vintner, he cannot speak freely to the niece of the Duke of Norfolk.

You have never spoken to me of these matters, and I beg your forgiveness if I am presuming too much, but, because of your modest and agreeable manner, I have always suspected that Naomi was not entirely truthful in the account she gave her grandmother of your antecedents. If this is the case, is there anything I can do? It would please me to do you whatever small service I can to begin to make up for the grief I have caused you.

I have also written to Lady Burley begging her forgiveness. I hope that our speedy return will soon relieve the burden you have had to assume,

I remain,
Your servant,
Arianne Martin

 

Letter XIX

 

August 7, 1816

My Dear Arianne,

How relieved I am to learn that you are safe and well. But please do not believe that this is all your doing. Perhaps if I had been more trusting and less headstrong, I might have opened my heart to you and none of this would have happened.

With all the excitement I had forgotten that Lady Burley believed I had such exalted connections, nor did it occur to me that she would have communicated them to Mr Evatt. I did not set out to deceive, but Naomi was so afraid of incurring her grandmother’s displeasure that I agreed not to contradict her and thought little of the consequences.

I would consider it a great kindness if you could convey to Mr Evatt the intelligence that far from being the Bishop of Ely, my father is but a poor country rector whose only connection with the Duke of Norfolk is that he was born in that county. Nor am I a student at Mrs Llewellyn’s school but a teacher there of needlework, painting and deportment. My father might harbour some prejudice against trade, but I do not – well, not anymore.

Come home soon, Arianne. We are all eager to see you again. And thank you,

Believe me to be,
Now and ever,
Your friend,
Elizabeth Howard

 

Letter XX

 

August 7, 1816

My Dear Miss Howard,

You cannot know with what joy I heard your message conveyed by Arianne. Can it be true? Would you really accept my suit? But even so, I would yet approach you with all humility, for it was not just the high standing of your reputed connections that stayed my hand. It was also your grace, beauty and integrity that silenced me. I could never presume that I might ever be found worthy of you.

You have lifted such a weight from my heart, but even as I rode out of Sandridge House with Sir William, I was determined to return and, braving the worst of humiliations at your hands, lay my heart at your feet, with every confidence in your honesty and sincerity, whether or no you might accept it.

But I cannot wait even until my return and must speak now. My dearest Elizabeth, I love you. I have loved you since the moment my aunt introduced us in the Blue Salon. How it irked me that I was there on an errand for another and was honour bound to advance his cause before my own. How it broke my heart to warrant your mistrust while impotent to defend myself. Yet how your own uncompromising integrity and loving heart shone through as you defended Arianne’s honour, and with every quarrel I own I loved you all the more. I shall never love another as I have loved you, whatever my fate at your hands. If you can give me nothing else, may I at least beg your trust and understanding?

Therefore, I beseech your permission to speak to you and offer you on bended knee my heart, my person and my fortune when I return to Sandridge House tomorrow,

For ever,
Your most Humble Servant,
Robert Evatt

 

Letter XXI

 

August 8, 1816

My Dearest Margaret,

I trust Papa received my brief note announcing the discovery safe and sound of our errant young ladies and their knight. They arrived home this afternoon escorted by Sir William and Mr Evatt.

The whole party was exhausted and would have gone straight to their rooms, but Lady Burley had words to say to them first. As you can imagine she was furious with them all. Not even Arianne was spared her wrath, for she is convinced that she has been leading Sir Charles on behind her back. She has decreed that to avoid retribution from her relatives, Sir Charles must marry Arianne. Marie contradicted her indignantly, calling Lady Burley a few epithets that her ladyship did not need any knowledge of French to get the gist of. She sent Marie to her room with a retort in kind in the best sailors’ argot. As you can imagine, after that performance, Arianne could not tell her ladyship about her engagement to Sir William and retreated meekly. Mr Evatt asked us all to leave him alone with his aunt, but he tells me she was too wound up to listen to his reason.

So it was some time after his arrival that Mr Evatt and I could have any time together. I am afraid I cannot write what transpired between us, but as an engaged woman yourself, I am sure you can guess. Suffice to say that we are now on terms of complete openness and trust, and that I can now call him Robert, and he calls me his dearest Elizabeth.

Although I long to see you both, it might be a few days before my departure can be arranged. Given the state of affairs here, Robert has undertaken to stay until Lady Burley has calmed down, after which he has offered to escort me home and speak to Papa. My dearest, would you be so kind as to prepare Papa for our arrival? Please assure him that Robert might be in trade but that he is most gentlemanly in his manner and conduct and will do him proud as a son-in-law.

Please believe me,

The happiest of woman,
Your sister,
Elizabeth

 

Epilogue

 

August 18, 1816

My Dearest Margaret,

Robert and I are to depart at first light tomorrow morning. Lady Burley has graciously lent me the girl who acted as my maid as chaperone. Matters have settled down somewhat at Sandridge House, but life there will never be the same again.

Although Lady Burley had decreed that Sir Charles should marry Arianne, she had to reconsider her position when the whole Deschamps family descended on Sandridge House, demanding that Sir Charles marry Marie, and threatening to cause a great scandal if he does not. Sir Charles pretends to baulk at the idea, maintaining his resolve to marry Arianne, but I believe that he and Marie will make a good match as they are both terrible romantics.

Fearing the wrath of her Martin kin, Lady Burley has found a solution to her dilemma. She spoke to Arianne privately and solemnly asked her if she would accept a financial settlement in lieu of marriage to Sir Charles. You can imagine with what alacrity Arianne accepted the offer, for this will surely lessen the Earl’s objections. At the same time, since the Deschamps are nowhere as rich as Lady Burley believed, she will have to make another substantial settlement on Sir Charles if he is to live in a manner befitting a Baronet.

In the meantime, all of Lady Burley’s ire has fallen on the hapless Naomi. She, poor child, has confided in me that she cannot bear to live under the same roof as her grandmother any longer and is threatening to elope. She has been in secret correspondence with Lord George. It seems the two of them are genuinely in love and he has offered her marriage. Robert does not doubt that Lord George is sincere, but he understands that, despite his rank, the man is virtually penniless and so must be a constant drain on her Ladyship’s purse.

So, just as she hoped, Lady Burley has had us all married off before the end of the summer, although I doubt this is the ending she had foreseen. I, on the other hand, see us all living happily ever after.

Yours as ever,
Elizabeth

© Pauline Montagna 2016

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