Lady Helena Investigates

chapter one: the bereaved

 

Sussex, 1881

“The point is,” said my brother Michael, “Helena can’t possibly manage the estate now that Justin’s dead. And this house is far too large for a widow with no children.”

He put his teacup down on the ornate marble mantelpiece, shoving a Dresden shepherdess to the side. The porcelain figurine wobbled dangerously. Michael shot out a steadying hand, glaring at the offending piece for getting in his way.

Julia, Michael’s wife, rose from her perch on a gilded bergère by the crackling fire. She retrieved Michael’s cup and set the figurine back in its proper place. “Really, Michael, this is hardly the time to browbeat poor Helena. She’s been a widow for precisely nine days. Was there a crowd for the burial, by the way? I really don’t see why we women should be excluded from such affairs.”

My glance met Julia’s as she passed me, cup in hand, and I could see the sympathy in her eyes. I swallowed back a threatening tear. Nine days was certainly not enough time to adjust to the death of a beloved husband. I bent down to put a hand on my terrier, Scotty, who was lying at my feet with his head on his paws. The movement allowed me to dab surreptitiously at the corners of my eyes with the handkerchief I held crumpled in my palm.

“The gentry turned out in force, as I’d have expected.” Michael fidgeted with his watch chain. “It was a decent enough show. Julia, I wish you’d pour me more tea.”

“I’m sure you did a splendid job as head of the family, darling.” Julia, who had anticipated Michael’s request, handed her husband a fresh cup of tea, smiling up into his eyes.

Poor Julia. Michael was tall, handsome, and well-built, with the thick shock of corn-blond hair and brilliant blue eyes that distinguished the Scott-De Quincys—well, most of them. At twenty-three, he carried his position as the Earl of Broadmere and head of the Scott-De Quincy family well. Or at least well enough that people generally overlooked his lack of social graces, kindness, and empathy. Perhaps I alone noticed the slight downturn in the corners of Julia’s mouth as Michael took the cup from her without a word.

“Ned helped with the formalities.” Michael waved a hand at where Sir Edward Freestone, our brother-in-law and senior by a good thirty years, dozed in one of the larger armchairs by the fire. He’d forgotten to take off the decorative chain, donned for the funeral, that proclaimed his status as mayor of Littleberry. It was slipping to one side, its heavy gold links reflecting red flickers of flame as Ned’s chest rose and fell. “And Thomas made himself useful, of course.”

Our sister Geraldine—Lady Geraldine Freestone—sniffed delicately at the mention of her eldest son’s name, and her lips tightened. Thomas had been a chief mourner at Justin’s funeral by my insistence. Gerry clearly disapproved, but just as clearly felt she should indulge my wishes as a young widow. So she refrained from speaking, communicating her scorn for her son by a straightening of her back and the angle of her blond head. Thomas, always sensitive to his parents’ feelings, had taken himself off to the nursery to amuse his nephews and small cousins.

I listened to Michael’s terse, factual description of my husband’s funeral with half an ear, staring down at my dull black bombazine skirts. If only there weren’t quite so many people in the room. As the sixth daughter, I’d spent my youth surrounded by other people, but since my marriage to Justin, I’d grown accustomed to the peace and spaciousness of Whitcombe House. Our world had revolved around the two of us, and we’d been happy. For me, that happiness had been all the more precious since I’d already lost one love, my cousin Daniel—and now my darling Justin had followed him to the grave. I forced out a small cough to dispel the painful lump threatening to form in my throat.

Seeking distraction, I twisted a little in my seat to look out of the tall windows to the sea. The English Channel showed on the distant horizon as a band of glittering silver blue. In the near distance, the River Ealy reflected the intense sky of a late October afternoon. Justin had been found in that river, floating facedown under a dense layer of yellowed willow leaves.

No. My mind skittered away from the thought, as it had been doing for days.

“Don’t you agree, Helena?” Michael’s harsh voice brought me out of my reverie. “This house is much too large for a woman alone. It’s not logical that you occupy a twenty-four-bedroom house by yourself. Hyrst has only twelve bedrooms and houses Julia and me, our children, and Mama—who has four rooms, remember. And since Alice and Annette are unlikely to marry, I, as their brother, must always support them at Hyrst.”

“I suppose I could take Mama.” I heard my own voice, small and uncertain, and cursed inwardly. Justin had been my defender against my family’s attempts to manage me, but now that he was gone, I was all too easily slipping back into my childhood role. A wren among peacocks, my father had—affectionately—said, and I looked the part. I alone among the Scott-De Quincys was small, brown-haired, and gray-eyed, traits inherited from a line of ancestors whose portraits were inevitably hung in the darker corners of Hyrst’s dark rooms.

“You certainly won’t bully Baby into taking charge of Mama at such a time.” Odelia, the sister closest in age to me but still a full decade older, slid an arm across my shoulders, patting me with an elegantly beringed hand. “Really, Michael. The very idea.”

She touched my cheek with her other hand, her lean, handsome face close to mine. “Are you feeling quite well, Baby, dear? You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, you know. You’re your own mistress now.”

“I don’t want to be.” I stifled a sob and then stiffened my back. Michael wouldn’t understand my tears and would draw attention to them in a loud voice. “It’s all right, O. I have a headache, that’s all. I’ve done quite a bit of weeping, on and off, in the last few days.”

“Justin would not want you to weep.” Michael’s handsome brow contracted at my reference to my grief. I saw Julia roll her eyes behind her husband’s back.

“Don’t listen to Michael.” O’s voice was soothing. “He may be the earl, but to the rest of us he’s still the Dreadful Infant. Michael, go away and talk to someone else.” She met our brother’s blue glare with a hard stare of her own, dark blue eyes narrowed to menacing slits. “Baby’s had quite enough of being worried and upset.”

Michael, who was argumentative more out of a desire for logical outcomes than from a wish to win, shrugged and moved off. Dreadful Infant indeed. A recurring theme of my childhood memories was drawing or reading quietly while Michael embarked on his fifth or sixth tantrum of the day. And yet I, a year and a half older than Michael, was always called Baby. The Dreadful Infant had received a noble title and an important status at birth. From the moment he first drew breath, Michael was Viscount Overhey, the precious son, the future Earl of Broadmere, my father’s hope. Now the title of viscount had passed to his eldest son, as Michael had become an earl at eighteen and a father at nineteen.

Justin had made me forget the slights of my early years by giving me a position of my own. Now that he was gone, the weight of my family settled back over my shoulders like my father’s—now Michael’s—heavy coronation robes with their three rows of ermine spots.

Odelia wrinkled her nose at Michael’s retreating back and returned her attention to me. “Do you feel up to walking to Hyrst, Baby? I was just discussing the possibility of a walk with the others. Lady Ambition is against the plan”—she jerked her head at our sister Blanche—“but naturally Tweedledum and Tweedledee wish to walk. They always do.”

I looked over to where Blanche, the widowed Marchioness of Hastings, and our twin sisters Alice and Annette sat eating cucumber sandwiches and making desultory small talk. O waggled her fingers at the twins as their identical faces turned toward us. “I’d like to see Mama, today of all days, and she’ll be a comfort to you, I’m sure. It’s perfectly unfair that Michael didn’t even have her brought here. The poor woman’s a prisoner in her own home.”

I sighed, unwilling to contradict my sister. Mama was far too ill to leave her rooms, but I wasn’t about to provoke an argument by expressing my own opinions. My family had enough opinions of its own and didn’t need mine. So I smiled and squeezed O’s hand.

“A walk to Hyrst would be splendid.”

I rose to my feet, still smiling. After all, I was the mistress of Whitcombe House, and I had a hostess’s duties to perform. Scotty yawned and stretched, pricking his ears in a hopeful manner as I crossed to the fireplace to tug on the bellpull. Sensing a walk was imminent, he came to stand close to me, white-streaked tail wagging furiously.

I addressed Gerry, giving my oldest sister a chance to assert some authority in the face of Michael’s overbearing assumption of his own importance.

“Would you walk to Hyrst with us, Gerry? The fresh air will do me good.” I smiled fondly at Ned as he became conscious of his wife’s stony gaze and opened one eye. “Ned will have a chance to shake off some of the cobwebs.”

“You try being mayor.” Ned affected to sound cross, but his eyes twinkled as he disentangled himself from his chain of office, dropping the heavy thing on the floor beside his chair. “I always seem to have to get up early or retire late because somebody wants to see me. I fall asleep as soon as I’m sitting still.” Seeing Scotty, of whom he was rather fond, he clicked his tongue at my little dog. “You understand, don’t you, Scotty? These women—if only they’d leave a fellow alone.”

I grinned at my brother-in-law, noting that the whole mood of the room seemed to lighten. Insignificant as I was within my family, they were still prepared to defer to my feelings as the recently bereaved—and that was something.

I could almost hear Justin saying, “Chin up, my dear. Think of the county.” Those encouraging words, always accompanied by a broad wink, had never failed to make me laugh. Oh, Justin. How I would miss my husband’s steady, unassuming, sane presence.

* * *

A large family has its disadvantages. It took an hour to get the children ready and to cajole the adults into stopping their chatter and dressing for the outdoors. We arranged for my lady’s maid, Guttridge, to travel to Hyrst in the brougham. With her went my evening dress and those of Odelia and Blanche, who were staying at Whitcombe House.

Blanche characteristically made an issue of having to walk. She, of course, would have preferred to occupy the brougham even if it meant making Guttridge carry the dresses over on foot. She made a terrible fuss over how our black dresses would show the dust of the lane, and it took a stinging remark from O to silence her.

And then Geraldine tried to issue an edict that Thomas would slow us down and should go in the brougham. Fortunately, Ned fought in Thomas’s corner for once and insisted his eldest son would walk with the rest of us.

“I’m quite sure M-Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt with less bother than this.” Thomas eyed the assorted governesses and nursemaids in charge of Julia and Michael’s three small children and my niece Lydia’s sons. Lydia was the oldest of Gerry’s children—older than me, in fact. Petey, Gerry’s youngest, was showing off for his younger cousins by trying in vain to make Scotty perform tricks. My niece Maryanne, not yet married, carried on an intense and audible conversation with her sister Lydia about how soon they could introduce some ornamentation into their mourning dresses. We were at the rear of the procession, of course, because of Thomas’s slow pace. Petey, a good-natured child, had walked with his brother for a while until the lure of the dog and the other children proved too strong.

“I daresay you’re right.” I smiled at Thomas, who was only two years younger than me and more like a brother than a nephew. “Look at Blanche. If I were a betting woman, I’d say she’s complaining about the stones in the lane hurting her feet through the soles of her shoes.”

“She’d be perfectly happy if C-Cousin Dederick were here.”

“Dederick’s visits to his mother are rarer than those of royalty since he inherited his title. I suppose you’re right, Thomas—part of Blanche’s problem is loneliness. You’re so much kinder than I am.”

“N-nonsense. You’re one of the k-kindest people I know. So was Uncle Justin. I’m so sorry about him.”

“So am I.” I threaded my hand under my nephew’s arm, which happened to be his bad one. It was fixed in a bent position, its hand twisted and claw-like, but I was used to its strange frailty and rigidity. Thomas’s good left arm, strong and muscular, with the huge hand of a young man not yet done growing, swung at his side. My nephew always refused to use a crutch, saying he didn’t want his best limb occupied in bearing him up. His lame foot dragged a little through the dusty gravel of the lane, but he moved easily enough, forcing his pace to keep up with the others.

“You know,” I said after a few minutes’ silence, “Justin was so very fond of you. Said he wished he had a son like you.”

“Not entirely l-like me.” Thomas gave me a rueful smile.

“Well,” I said, feeling for my words, “I don’t suppose I’d wish a disability on any child. But on the whole, Justin and I would have cheerfully accepted your disadvantages to have a son with your goodness and intelligence. And good looks, if they matter at all. In point of fact, any child at all would have been wonderful.”

I sounded more wistful than I’d meant to. That chapter of my life was now definitely closed.

“You’re r-right of course. I have l-life and comparative good health and a r-roof—one of the best in Littleberry—over my head. I have three good meals a day, warm clothing, and employment. Don’t think I c-curse the day I was born, anything like that.”

Thomas looked like an angel when he smiled. Tall and fair, a true Scott-De Quincy, he should have been his parents’ pride and joy. As things stood, Gerry and Ned had difficulty seeing past the bent arm and shuffling gait to their son’s beauty and courage.

“P-Petey’s going to school soon, did you know?” Thomas continued. “W-Westminster. Papa thinks he should try for C-Cambridge later. Pursue a political career. No grubbing around in the wine importation business for him.”

“I’m sorry.” I gave Thomas’s arm a gentle squeeze. “Petey’s far behind where you were at his age as far as intelligence goes, although he’s a nice boy. You’d make a much better scholar. Clerking for your father’s beneath your position in life.”

Thomas’s mouth twisted up at the corner. “What position?” He stared ahead to where my brother and sisters formed a straggling diagonal across the lane, a black wall of backs that excluded us completely. “Cripples have n-no position.”

“Neither do widows, at least not in Michael’s way of thinking,” I sighed. “Michael doesn’t think I’m capable of looking after Justin’s—my—land and properties.”

“But you own everything, don’t you? Not like Aunt Blanche, who has to live on a widow’s jointure and watch Dederick squander all the money. If you’d had a s-son—”

“—I’d be in Blanche’s position. But yes, I’m the sole owner of all that was Justin’s until I marry again. And yet Michael is still trying to wrest control of my life from my hands. And my husband’s barely—”

I had to stop and swallow hard. I could feel the emotion I’d been refusing to acknowledge all day building up inside of me, liquid and treacherous. My husband was barely cold in his grave, as the expression went. But he was cold, enclosed in the chilly clay of a Sussex autumn. My spouse had been my best friend, a warm and constant presence at my side, snugly encased in the countryman’s tweeds he wore whenever he could get away with it. He had smelled of the outdoors and wood smoke and sheep’s wool because he was a gentleman farmer who worked for the love of the work and not because he needed the money. He had been a vigorous man—twenty-two years older than me to be sure, but hale and healthy in almost every respect. And now—

“Are you all right, Auntie? You’re looking a bit green.”

“Yes.” I took a very deep breath. “I’m going to have to visit Justin’s grave tomorrow. The thought upsets me.” My voice sounded brusque to my ears. The threatening onslaught of tears altered its timbre, making my throat hurt again.

“Death puts everything else into perspective, doesn’t it? I’m s-sorry I bothered you with my petty jealousies.” Thomas looked contrite.

“Don’t mind me. I’m fighting the urge to howl and weep like a lunatic.” I dashed a furtive hand across my eyes. “Please talk to me about Petey and your father for as long as you like. Remind me that I’m rich and nominally independent. That, unlike you, I can legally and morally do what I jolly well please. I just have to get over this—this shock—and learn to find a way to stand on my own two feet for the first time in my life. It’s what Justin would have wanted.”

 

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