Grace sat with her head demurely lowered. Her feet were placed neatly together, her hands resting in her lap. She said nothing, allowing the impassioned young man to have his say. She had received enough proposals of marriage now to understand the proper form.
The drawing room was spacious, for Allamont Hall was a fine building in the generous style of the previous century, and he strode about it, hands gesturing to emphasise his points, like an actor on a stage. He told her of his delightful manor house in Wiltshire, and the hunting lodge — not his, precisely, but his uncle allowed him the use of it — and the rich farm lands whose rents paid for a most elegant and stylish manner of living, according to his description of it. He mentioned the two carriages he intended to have and the several more horses to add to his stable, and he hoped that, when she was his wife, she would have no fewer than twenty-three servants at her command, and wear diamonds and silk, and sit down to two full courses at dinner every day. He dined with twenty families regularly in his own neighbourhood, he said, and more in Bath, and counted some great names among his acquaintance — he mentioned one or two, in an overly casual manner. There was a living in his gift, if she should have any clergymen in the family. She should want for nothing, he assured her, nothing at all. Except for love, of course. Of that he made no mention, only respect, esteem, companionship.
When he had exhausted his eloquence, she lifted her head and made the little speech which repetition had rendered fluent. Most obliged — such a great honour — very sensible of the innumerable advantages of the match — the greatest regret — impossible to accept — so very sorry to be the cause of disappointment.
He grunted in surprise, eyebrows raised. Leaning one arm against the mantelpiece, he stared at her in bewilderment. He was a solid young man, dressed with more flamboyance than elegance, his cravat an impressively overwrought arrangement. “You do not wish to be mistress of Darrowhall, Miss Allamont?” His tone was full of astonishment, as if he could conceive of no greater happiness in life.
“I have no wish to be mistress of any establishment,” Grace said. “I have not the least intention of marrying at present, as I have expressed to you many times before.”
“Indeed you have professed something of the sort, but naturally you were not serious. All young ladies aspire to marriage, when the right offer is made.”
Grace said nothing, hoping he would draw the obvious conclusion from her refusal— that this was not the right offer.
The young man had too elevated opinion of himself, however. “I must beg you to consider your answer most carefully. It would be foolish to expect a man, once rebuffed, to continue to press his suit, and who can say how many more offers you might receive? If I may speak with the utmost frankness, Miss Allamont, your age is against you, nor have you enjoyed the advantage of a season in London to prepare you for a role in the highest echelons of society, such as would make you attractive to the nobility. Viewed in this light, I do not believe I flatter myself in supposing that you will not receive a better offer than mine.”
This presumption was too much for Grace. Straightening her back and lifting her chin, she said carefully, “You do indeed flatter yourself, sir. I shall never lack suitors, for it seems impoverished gentlemen are drawn to my dowry like bees to clover.”
This was a little too close to the mark, for the young man’s lips compressed. “There is no more to be said,” he snapped. “I hope you do not live to regret this day, Miss Allamont. Pray give my regards to Lady Sara and Miss Hope. I bid you good day.”
He swept out of the room. She waited, listening to the murmur of voices in the hall, as he reclaimed his hat, gloves and greatcoat from the footman. Then steps crossing the hall, the front door creaking open and footsteps crunching on the gravel, disappearing round the side of the house to the stables, for he was too impatient to wait for his horse to be brought round.
When all was quiet again, she picked up her skirts and skipped out of the drawing room and across the hall to the book room, banging open the door. Here she found her youngest sister, Hope, giggling over a journal with their cousin, Hugo. Hope was the prettiest of the sisters, and Hugo was a broodingly handsome man. As they bent over the pages, their dark heads almost touching, an observer might take them for brother and sister instead of distant cousins.
In a corner, Miss Bellows huddled with a book. Poor Miss Bellows! Once the governess to the six Allamont sisters, as they had left their lessons behind her role had dwindled over the years to companion and chaperon. Now, with only Grace and Hope yet unmarried, Miss Bellows had added the role of matchmaker to her repertoire. She looked up with hopeful eyes.
“Grace, dear! Well? What did you say to him? May we wish you happy?”
“I trust you will always wish me happy, Lavinia, but not, I hope, as the wife of such a grasping man as that. Who asked him to come all the way from Wiltshire to pay court to me anyway?”
“Oh!” Miss Bellows’ face fell. “You turned him down, I collect. Poor man! I hope he will not be too disappointed.”
“He will not repine for long,” Grace said. “He has such a high opinion of himself that he will soon be pursuing some other heiress to grace his precious Darrowhall, and to pay for his diamonds and his twenty-three servants and two full courses every evening. He will not feel my loss for long, I assure you.”
Miss Bellows sighed. “Yet such an eligible young man, and a very agreeable manner. A most pleasing countenance, too, and so obligingly civil to me, always, and devoted to you, Grace.”
“Oh, stuff!” Grace said. “His devotion was entirely to my dowry. They are always so devoted to my dowry, these ardent young men. I know we are very fortunate to have such large portions, and it was generous of Papa, when he was quite miserly in other respects, but sometimes I wish he had not set up that mysterious account for us in Shropshire. At least then I would not be plagued with fortune-hunters like this Wiltshire fellow, with all his airs. You are too romantic altogether, Lavinia, if you see anything of affection in his manner towards me.”
“Well, I never liked him,” Hugo said. “He is not going to hang about and have another pop at you, is he?”
“Lord, I hope not!” Grace said. “I have no idea why he stayed so long. Not because of any encouragement on my part, you may be sure. If I told him once I had no wish to marry, I must have told him a hundred times, but he would never take the hint.”
“They never do, these fellows,” Hugo said. “Always think they will be the one to turn your head. How many have there been now? Must be a dozen at least.”
“Seventeen,” Hope said in anguished tones. “Grace has had seventeen offers, although the elder Mr Cranford proposed three times before he gave it up and went away quite broken-hearted, so perhaps two of those do not count. And I have had five, and none of them the least bit interested in anything but our money.”
“Now, now, Hope, I believe there may be just a little exaggeration,” Miss Bellows said. “Mr Dawson is certainly rich enough not to care about your dowry.”
“Oh, him!” Hope cried. “I do not regard him as a serious suitor, for he is old enough to be my grandfather, or almost so. As if I could ever consider such a match. I daresay we shall never marry, sister. We shall be old maids together, and take comfort only in each other as we grow old, and be buried side by side in the churchyard.”
“Well, that sounds very dull,” Grace said. “I have not found anyone who suits me yet, but I suppose we shall both marry eventually. We must, for the alternative is far worse, and I do not want to be an old maid like Miss Endercott, and be laughed at by the village children. I wish I had been a boy, and then I might have gone into the army. Think how exciting that would be, galloping into battle with my sword! I should like it of all things. But no, I must sit with my tapestry or my paintbrush, or practise upon the pianoforte, and hope for an eligible man to rescue me from such tedium. It is so boring to be a lady! If only Mama would allow us to go to London. Just think how exciting that would be, and that is also where all the most eligible men are to be found. We could have our pick of them, I daresay, and surely one or two would be tolerable.”
“But we are so old!” wailed Hope. “I am one and twenty already, and you are three and twenty! Who will want us when we have been out for years and years?”
“You refine too much upon it,” Miss Bellows said firmly. “Although it is a pity Lady Sara will not permit you to stay with your sister now and then. The Marchioness would soon find husbands for you, I am certain of it. Look how splendid a match she managed for Miss Graham, when even her own mama despaired of finding anyone suitable for her.”
The sisters were silent, not liking to contradict Miss Bellows, but not quite agreeing that becoming the third wife of a gouty Viscount with a string of children and grandchildren could be described as a splendid match.
“You could always marry me,” Hugo said, grinning. “Either one of you would do the trick, for then the Hall would be mine, you know, and I should like that tremendously. I was exceedingly put out when Papa suggested I take a look at the accounts for you and sort things out, but it has been excellent fun.”
“You just like galloping about the countryside talking to the tenants,” Grace said. “And to be sure, that does sound like fun. But Hugo, you will not be offended if I say that I should not like to marry you.”
“Nor I!” Hope said. “For that would make you just as bad as any of the others — marrying for the sake of the Hall is no different from marrying for a dowry. Oh, how I wish Papa had not left everything so awkwardly! Such a strange will, insisting that we all marry in turn by age, and then, if Ernest and Frank cannot be found, the Hall goes to James or Mark or Hugo, but only if they marry one of us, and if that fails, it will go to the church and we shall be cast out of our home, and what will become of us then?”
Grace rolled her eyes, for she had heard it all a thousand times before. She was fond of Hope, as she must always be of a sister, but the dear girl always imagined the worst.
“Now, now, Hope, it will not come to that,” Miss Bellows said soothingly. “There is still plenty of time for Ernest and Frank to be found, for I daresay they are far away and news is slow to reach them. Even if they are not, you will both be married before then, I wager, so it will not affect you, and if not, you will always have a home with your mama. Lady Sara will have the Dower House, and a comfortable income of her own, so you need not fear to starve, or need to seek employment.”
“No, indeed!” Grace said. “That would be dreadful, to be forced to become a governess or some such. Oh, Lavinia, I beg your pardon! I did not mean… it is only that we are not suited to such work, you know. Not like you, so kind and patient as you are.”
Miss Bellows smiled thinly. “I am not offended, Grace, dear. I know better than most the disadvantages of my situation, which is why I urge you both to marry as soon as you can. Being a wife, and mistress of your own establishment, and enjoying your own dear children — it is a far more pleasant life, I do assure you.”
A discreet knock at the door of the book room was followed by the portly figure of Young, the butler. “Mr Graham is here, Miss Allamont,” he said to Grace. “Shall I show him into the drawing room? The fire can be lit in a moment.”
“Oh, if it is only George Graham, we need not stand on ceremony. Show him in here.”
Young threw a glance at Miss Bellows, but with the slightest lift of one shoulder, she acceded to the arrangement.
George Graham was the only son of Sir Matthew Graham, a close neighbour and family friend. He strode into the book room with an impish grin on his face.
“How very cosy, I declare! This is treating me very much as one of the family. Miss Bellows, I trust you are well? Hope. Hugo. Oh, I say, Grace, I like this new way you have with your hair. You look just like a boy!”
“This shorter style is all the fashion amongst the ton, or so Connie said. Hers is even shorter. Her maid cut it for me when she was here last.”
“Very daring of you,” George said, winking at her. “I’ll wager your mama did not approve, eh? But never mind that, for as I rode over here, I passed that dreary friend of the Donboroughs and he had a face like a wet week in Bath. What did you do to him?”
“She refused him!” Hope said, in a melodramatic whisper.
“I should hope so!” George said. “Can’t have Grace marrying such a dullard, can we? She can do better than that, I vow. Much, much better.”
George rode home in a pleasant frame of mind. The Allamont sisters always cheered him up — well, not Hope so much, for she could be unspeakably miserable when the mood took her — but Grace was a lively girl, and always good fun.
There was another cause for good cheer, too — Miss Dilworthy would by now be ensconced in her travelling carriage, together with her snooty mama, her maid and a parrot in a cage, which accompanied her everywhere, well on their way back to whatever God-forsaken county they hailed from. Lancashire, he rather thought. Or was it Yorkshire? Well, good riddance to her. He wished the girl no harm, but he was not about to become leg-shackled to so spineless a creature. “Yes, Mama. No, Mama. Of course, Mama. At once, Mama.” Never a thought in her head that hadn’t been put there by the formidable Mrs Dilworthy. He could not imagine what his mother had been thinking of, to suppose for more than three seconds that he would be enticed to marry such a feeble specimen.
Unfortunately, now that Lizzie was safely wed and well-placed to launch her sisters into society when their time came, Lady Graham had turned her attentions to the matrimonial prospects of her son. George was determined that it would avail her nothing. No matter how many Miss Dilworthys she paraded in front of him, he had no intention of being caught. Not yet! He was barely five and twenty. Another five years, and then, perhaps he would consider it, for he knew his duty as the heir to a baronetcy, but not yet.
He turned in at the gates of Graham House, pondering whether it was worth the effort of taking a gun out that afternoon, or whether the day was too far gone, only to pull up with an exclamation of dismay. A carriage was drawing to a halt before the front door. His immediate fear was that the Dilworthys had returned, but a cursory glance confirmed that it was a different carriage. Besides, it was a man descending from it, and mounting the steps to the entrance.
Hastily, George rode round to the stables, slid from his horse, and tore into the house, striding through the twisting passages from the rear and into the capacious hall, to hear voices from the saloon. Both his parents, and a third — the mystery man. Without ceremony, he burst into the room. Three faces turned to him as one, his mother tutting in vexation, his father trying not to laugh, and the visitor smiling.
“George! How delightful!”
“Uncle Jasper! What are you doing here?”
His uncle smiled, but Lady Graham said, “Really, George! Must you come in here smelling of horse? And where are your manners? Greet your uncle properly.”
“Ah, no need for formality, Julia. I am glad you are here, George, for this is a family matter, and you should know of it. Your great-grand-mama’s will has finally been located—”
“Good Lord!” George said. “After all this time! Wherever was it?”
“Behind a loose brick in the stables, would you believe.”
George gave a bark of laughter. “I would believe anything of great-granny. That is just like her, to hide it away somewhere it would likely never be found.”
“Indeed. It was fortunate that my new hunter took exception to one of the grooms, and lashed out with a hoof in just the right place, else we might never have found it. But it confirms what you have said all along, Julia, that the necklace is to go to you.”
Lady Graham inclined her head graciously. “She always said so, but of course without a will… But I imagine that Lilian will say she was not of sound mind when she wrote it?”
Her brother had the grace to look embarrassed. “Lilian did say something of the sort, I confess. She set her heart on that necklace long ago, and heaven knows she deserves it, given what she has had to put up with from the old lady. My wife has the patience of a saint. But the law is clear, and the necklace is yours.”
“The famous diamonds — shall you wear them?” George said gleefully. “How splendid you will look!”
“Regrettably, no one will wear them,” his uncle said. “The diamonds have disappeared. Lilian has scoured the house from attic to cellar, as you may imagine, but without the slightest success. The maid has insisted all along that they were lost, and the worst of it is, she says that the last time she recalls seeing them was here in this very house.”
“Really?” Lady Graham said calmly. “I cannot say when I last saw her wear them.”
“Do you mean,” George said breathlessly, “that the Durmaston Diamonds may be somewhere in this house? Or behind a brick in our stables?”
“It is entirely possible,” his uncle said.
“Famous! We must begin a search at once!” George said, with a wide grin. “A treasure hunt — what could possibly be more amusing?”
“Oh, George,” his mother said, shaking her head sorrowfully. “So frivolous! Sometimes I despair of you. When will you ever grow up?”
His father raised an eyebrow languidly. “It will do no harm. Let the boy search if he wishes. He must be bored now that all his friends are occupied elsewhere.”
“Occupied?” George said. “Tied down, I should rather say. Dragged off to the continent, like old Wilson, or worse, to Scotland, like Macintyre. Poor Lannington is to be fitted up for a cleric’s coat, and never was a man less suited to the profession. And the rest of them married, or as good as. Leg-shackled, and at only twenty-five. Desperate indeed.”
His father smiled fondly at his wife. “It is not so terrible a fate, being leg-shackled, as you will find out one of these days, George. But by all means look for the diamonds if you will. I daresay you will find nothing but a great deal of dust.”
“There is no dust in this house, you may be sure of that,” his wife said, bridling. “Nor is there any corner neglected by the servants where a diamond necklace may be hiding.”
“Then George will be disappointed,” her husband said. “But it must not be said that we failed to look for the necklace, knowing it to be missing.”
“Exactly!” George said gleefully. “I shall start at once — in the attics, I think.”
He raced off to begin, his mother’s protestations fading into the distance behind him.