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Authors: Judith B. Glad

Tags: #19th Century, #England, #marriage, #Regency, #Regency Romance, #Romance

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BOOK: A Pitiful Remnant
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The first day he managed to eat a whole bowl of soup,
Nettles returned after placing the bowl outside this room. "I reckon
you're well enough now, sor. I'll call her ladyship."

The elderly woman who entered was familiar. He had seen
her before, on the day they had carried him into this house. She had
fainted. Later she had irrigated his hand and his sheets with her
tears.

Now she hobbled to the chair Nettles had set beside the bed.
"Clarence," she said, in a voice that broke on the word. "You're going
to live."

He stared. She looked so much like his mother, but she was
old. "I'm sorry, madam. But who are you?"

She burst into tears. He couldn't understand but one word in
ten, but those he did comprehend answered his question. "Mother...
Mother?"

She caught his hand and carried it to her lips. "How could
you forget me? Your own mother?"

His mother was young and gay, with gleaming golden hair
and sparkling blue eyes. This woman's hair was drab, her pale eyes
rheumy. Her face was lined and careworn. "I'm sorry. My mind... It's
not clear." No lie, for his memories were confused, with events of his
youth mixed with chaotic images of the hell he'd lived through the
past few years.

He stared at her, trying to make sense of the changes he saw.
And slowly it all came clear. He had been gone for eight years, and
had carried no pictures of his mother with him, save in his
memories. In those long years, his own hair had gone gray at the
temples, his body had matured, so that the slender stripling who'd
eagerly purchased a lieutenancy had become a muscled man with
lines of care and suffering replacing the youthful smile.

And his mother had grown old.

"Of course. I understand." But she didn't. He saw that in her
eyes, saw the shadow of hurt.

"Father...?"

Her tears only increased.

"Mother? What is it?"

"Your father..." She buried her face in trembling hands. After
a moment she drew a deep breath and looked up. "Your father died
two months ago. I wrote--"

"I received no letter." Why was he surprised? How could
anything so ordinary as mail have been distributed in the rout that
ended on the beach at Coruña?

"How?" He'd feel pain later. For now he only felt numb.

"He..." She buried her face again and sobbed loudly. After a
few minutes, she said, "He shot himself."

Chapter Two

Lisanor watched through the narrow slit between curtains
as the gentlemen descended from their carriages. Most of them,
moved with hunched shoulders and tucked chins, shielding
themselves from the icy rain.

Two old men led the procession through the front door.
Uncle Percival, even more enormously fat than she remembered,
shambled slowly toward her. The other, ancient, tall, but so thin that
he hardly cast a shadow, was a distant cousin whose name she'd
forgotten. The two of them were the only male remnants of the
once-numerous Hights, and both were childless. She and Alanna were the
last of the line.

A pitiful remnant indeed, of proud Saxon yeomen, loyal
followers of Ethelred the Unready, whose descendants had held the
land he'd rewarded them with for six hundred years. And most
recently, a follower of Wellesley in Spain.

Her brother had died at Roliça. In one fateful battle,
the entire future of the Hights had vanished in a puff of canon
smoke.

Mr. Whitsomeworth, the solicitor, was a bent little man with
peculiar tufts of grey hair sticking out to the sides of his head like a
cow's ears. He stepped forward and to where she and Alanna stood
by the library door.

"Miss Hight...er... and Miss Alanna. Please join us in the
study."

Alanna bristled. "Who does he think he is, inviting us into
our own study?" But she only whispered it, and she followed Lisanor
through the door without a fuss.

Uncle Percival, his nephew Darius, and Cousin Wilbur
settled in the comfortable chairs drawn up before the desk, leaving
the two straight chairs at the back of the room to Lisanor and
Alanna.

Perhaps,
Lisanor thought,
they don't see us. After
all, we are mere women.

Mr. Whitsomeworth seated himself behind Grandfather's
desk. He shuffled papers for a moment, until the subdued chatter
around the room died down.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to read the last will and
testament of Gareth Caradoc William Hight, Esquire, late Master of
Ackerslea."

"Get on with it then." Uncle Percival was a legend in the
family. No one had ever seen him smile. Lisanor's grandfather had
disliked his younger brother intensely.

"Indeed, sir. If you will just be seated..."

Uncle Percival sat. The solicitor looked around the room, his
gaze resting on each of them in turn.

Mr. Whitsomeworth cleared his throat again. In ponderous
tones he began reading Grandfather's will. For a short eternity he
enumerated bequests to servants and distant relatives.

Some of those bequests would never be forthcoming,
because the funds that would have paid them were gone, squandered
by her father. She silently vowed to fulfill her grandfather's wishes,
no matter how long it took her.

The recitation of bequests had a soporific effect. She was
caught by surprise by a sudden silence. Mr. Whitsomeworth was
gazing at her expectantly. "Oh! I beg your pardon. I
was...thinking..."

Again that quiet little clearing of the throat. "Indeed." Mr.
Whitsomeworth tapped a finger on the remaining page of the will.
"Fully cognizant of the need for a strong hand to guide Ackerslea
Farm into the future, I have arranged a marriage contract between
my granddaughter, Lisanor Isolde Hight, and Major Clarence Eustace
Lamberton, son of Eustace Lamberton, Marquess of Guillemot, the
marriage to take place by proxy, unless Major Lamberton returns
from the Peninsula within six weeks of the date of my death." He
raised his chin and looked straight at her. "This codicil to the
deceased's will was written shortly after the casualty reports from
the Battle of Coruña were made public. Among those lost was
Dunstan Foxworth."

Lisanor had known since childhood that she was to marry
Gregory Sealand, but he, like so many second sons, had gone to the
army. He'd been posted to Spain, just in time to waste his life in the
fighting in Vimeiro village. Not to be discouraged, her grandfather
had found Dunstan Foxworth, nephew of an old friend in Devon, and
another who had no prospects of his own. She had met Captain
Foxworth and had found nothing to dislike about him, except that he
was a cavalryman. Military men had short life expectancies, but
other than that she'd had no objection to him.

His few stilted letters had showed her little of the man, but
she'd believed Grandfather when he promised that if she disliked
Captain Foxworth on closer acquaintance, she would not be forced to
marry him. In her admittedly meager experience, one man was much
like another. He would have done, as well as any man. She knew her
duty.

"Outrageous!" Uncle Percival snapped. "And who's to know
if this fella's alive either? Ain't they still reporting losses from that
debacle at Coruña?"

"Indeed. Which is why Mr. Hight named two guardians who
will be responsible for Miss Hight until her marriage."

"Well, tell us, man," Uncle Percival said. "Who are named her
guardians?" His tone made it clear he believed himself qualified for
the task.

Lisanor crossed her fingers.
I pray he is wrong in his
expectation.

"The Marquess of Guillemot and my humble self, if Major
Lamberton is...unavailable. Until Miss Hight reaches the age of
twenty-nine or marries a man of whom we approve. Whichever
comes first. Unfortunately--"

Before he could continue, the room erupted with speech.
Only Lisanor, Alanna and Mr. Whitsomeworth were silent.

She was still numb. Even before her grandfather's death, she
had been demoralized by the loss of not one, but two, prospective
husbands. She'd numbly agreed to Grandfather's suggestion of
Clarence Lamberton as a third candidate without really thinking
about it. After all, he was another military man, and would probably
not survive long enough to marry her.

Now she was being told she would be under the thumb of an
unknown nobleman for the foreseeable future. And Grandfather was
gone. His sudden death had left her reeling, especially since she
knew that nothing had really been settled. His death had been so
sudden, so unexpected. The tears she had suppressed while she and
Alanna waited for the men to return from the cemetery welled up
and overflowed.

Mr. Whitsomeworth held up his hands. "Unfortunately," he
said again, in a loud voice, "there is a further complication, one Mr.
Hight was unaware of when he requested me to write the
codicil."

His gaze, as it traversed the room, from one face to the next,
dampened all speech. "I learned just yesterday that Lord Guillemot
passed away two months ago. Unfortunately."

The gabble resumed, until Lisanor wanted to cover her ears
and run, screaming, from the room.

Again Mr. Whitsomeworth tapped the papers, this time with
some agitation, as if he was reluctant to continue. "I am prepared to
act as sole guardian, until such time as we can discover the
disposition of Lord Guillemot's affairs. Perhaps his heir..."

Uncle Percival asked the question Lisanor wanted to.
"What's to become of this estate until this is all sorted out? Last I
heard, the wolves were at the door. Drystan made a bloody mess of
things, and m'brother was too ill to stop him."

"I believe the creditors are prepared to be reasonable, for a
short spell, at least. And I have already taken steps to resolve this
dilemma."

Lisanor wondered what steps, while at the same time
thinking of what economies they could practice. The estate was solid;
only funds were lacking. Creditors hadn't been paid for months, the
household account was empty. Unless they sold off much of the
livestock, they wouldn't even be able to buy seed when spring came,
despite Mr. Fishman's strict economies. A few of the tenants were
already muttering of jobs to be had in the manufacturies.

"I've heard that Guillemot is under the hatches," Darius
Fortescue, Uncle Percival's nephew-by-marriage, said from the
doorway. Apparently he had been eavesdropping. "I doubt that a
marriage to the new marquess would be likely to reassure your
creditors. Or his." He sounded almost gleeful at the prospect.

"He's right," Percival sputtered. "Two bankrupt estates
combining? My good man, they're more apt to demand immediate
payment, rather than agree to delay it."

Darius strode to the front of the room, halted beside the
desk where Mr. Whitsomeworth sat. "Sell the place off. Pay the
creditors. Use what's left to give the girls dowries. That ought to get
them husbands. Solid yeomen, or maybe a hungry Scot. In fact..." He
licked his lips. "I'd marry the young one. Time I was settling
down."

Lisanor would have attacked him, but before she could,
Alanna picked up a vase and threw it, with excellent aim.

"I'd die a maid before I'd let you lay a finger on me, you...you
lecher."

"Why you little bitch--"

"Gentlemen! Gentlemen! Let us have some decorum."

Although the lawyer's expostulations had little effect, Uncle
Percival showed some initiative. He caught the tail of Darius' coat
and gave it a jerk.

"You ain't part of the family, nevvy. Got no say in what
happens."

Darius subsided, but only after a spiteful glare in Alanna's
direction.

"M'brother would spin in his grave were this place be sold,"
Percival said. "And I don't like the notion myself. There've been
Hights here since before the Normans came. If there's a way to save
it, you find it, Whitsomeworth. And you, Miss Hoity-toity, you'll
marry as you're bid, if it means keeping Ackerslea in the
family."

"I never said I would not," Lisanor said, while feeling strong
resentment that he should doubt her devotion to Ackerslea.

"Good. That's the ticket." He patted his round belly. "Is that
all, Whitsomeworth? Can we have our dinner now?"

"Indeed, Mr. Hight. Why don't you gentlemen remove to the
dining room? I have a bit more to discuss with Miss Hight and Miss
Alanna, but nothing to concern you."

Once the men had left, Mr. Whitsomeworth picked up the
papers, sorted through them, and pulled out one that was written on
both sides with crossed and recrossed lines. "I received this only
yesterday. It is from the solicitor who handles Lord Guillemot's
business affairs. Tsk, tsk. Most distressing." Mr. Whitsomeworth
tapped both forefingers on the papers lying before him.

"Lord Guillemot was severely wounded in the retreat at
Coruña. At present he is recuperating at Guillemot Burn, his
principal estate not too far from here, in Lincolnshire. The family has
not yet told him of the situation, though I have no reason to believe
he will reject the notion of a marriage between you." His slight smile
reminded Lisanor of a cat who's just swallowed the last feather of its
avian prey. "Had anyone but the late Mr. Gareth Hight held the
mortgages on the unentailed Guillemot properties, they would have
been called in long since. Your grandfather had considered it, but had
not made up his mind when... Well, now they are part of your
inheritance. The present marquess has not been told of the situation,
due to the severity of his injuries. Nor is he aware of the betrothal.
Indeed, you are almost certainly unknown to him, and we can expect
some resistance when he is appraised of your grandfather's
scheme."

"But you believe something can be worked out?"

"I have no doubt of it. Furthermore, I am hopeful that a loan
sufficient to cover living expenses for the two of you and your
dependents, plus whatever is necessary to maintain the farms will be
forthcoming."

BOOK: A Pitiful Remnant
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ads

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