Amy sat immobile, feet placed precisely side by side, her hands resting in her lap, back straight, eyes facing forward, just as she had sat every morning and evening when her father, Mr William Allamont of Allamont Hall, had led family prayers. Now his carved wooden chair behind the desk sat empty, swathed in black crepe, and the big, leather-bound Bible sat unopened, a thin strip of silk marking the last reading. He would never now reach the end of the Book of Jeremiah.
Mr Plumphett, the Allamont family’s solicitor, looked at the empty chair with its carefully arranged crepe, and made a small noise in his throat. Amy could not determine whether he was distressed or merely bewildered. After a little hesitation, he pulled forward a smaller chair, and rested his ample behind on the delicate silk-covered seat. His waistcoat was a deep russet colour, and with his spindly legs and wide chest, Amy thought he looked rather like a robin. A very large robin.
He gazed mournfully at the ladies. His position a little to one side of Mr Allamont’s chair required them to turn towards him. Amy moved only her head, and otherwise remained as still as a statue, just as her father would have expected. Her mother, who sat in front of her, was equally immobile, but Lady Sara Allamont was an earl’s daughter and always maintained a dignified bearing. Amy hoped that she and her sisters, in their identical black gowns, could manage the same.
Their chairs were arranged in two rows behind their mother. In the first row, Amy, Belle, Connie and Dulcie. In the second row, the two empty chairs for their missing brothers, Ernest and Frank, and then Grace and Hope. Miss Bellows, the girls’ governess and companion, huddled unobtrusively in a shadowy corner near the door.
They all waited in silence for Mr Plumphett to read the sheaf of documents in his hand. Papa’s will. The words which would determine all their futures. How had he left the estate, with the boys gone? How well would he provide for their Mama? And what would he give to his daughters? Amy tried not to tremble. Taking a deep breath, she watched Mr Plumphett as he rustled through the pages, the buttons of his waistcoat pulled tight. He had eaten a little too much plum pudding since Amy had last seen him, she suspected.
He coughed. “May I commence, my lady?”
Lady Sara graciously nodded her assent.
Mr Plumphett coughed again. “Well, now… where to begin? There is much preamble that will be of no interest to your ladyship, I am sure.” He shuffled the pages distractedly.
“Yes, my lady. Well…” Another cough. “It is just that… there may be some aspects that… perhaps your ladyship will not quite like…”
“Is my widow’s portion secure, Plumphett?” Her manner was serene, as always.
“Oh, yes, my lady, naturally.”
“And the estate? The girls’ dowries?”
“Of course, of course. All very much secure, my lady.”
“Then there is no cause to temporise. Pray continue, as expeditiously as may be.”
The solicitor bowed his head in acknowledgement, although his expression was more that of a man in imminent fear of execution. “Very well, then. To begin, there are the usual minor bequests, for servants of long-standing. There is a most handsome sum to the late Mr Allamont’s own favoured charity—”
“The home for foundling children in Brinchester. I know of it.”
He coughed, a discreet ahem sound. “Quite so, my lady. Then some other, more modest, charitable bequests. There is, if I may say so, a very generous allotment to myself. Most generous, and quite unexpected, I do assure you…”
“Of course, my lady.” He began to speak rather fast, so that Amy had trouble keeping up with the flow of words. “So in addition to the Dower House and your own settlement, your ladyship also has the right to remain in residence in Allamont Hall or the Shropshire house, entirely as you choose, and to enjoy the income from the Allamont estates in full until such time as the appointed heir shall marry or attain the age of thirty, whichever is the sooner.”
Mr Plumphett paused to take a breath and mop his brow. The ladies waited.
“This is where matters become… somewhat complicated.”
Amy felt a flutter of alarm. If the solicitor, who must have seen countless legal documents over the years, felt the need to issue such a warning, the will must be a veritable tangle of instructions. What had her father imposed upon them all?
Mr Plumphett continued, “Mr Ernest, naturally, stands to inherit all his father’s estate—”
“Only if he can be located.” Lady Sara sat as still as a graven image, her tone placid. “Plumphett, the boys ran away to sea six years ago. They were looked for everywhere at the time. Not a sign of them was found. Is it likely they will be discovered now?”
“We will do what we can, my lady. Notices in the newspapers, and so forth. Enquiries sent to the ports and colonies. It may be, in fact… that is to say, circumstances having changed… it is possible the two young men may indeed allow themselves to be discovered.”
“Allow themselves to be discovered?” Lady Sara said. “What can you possibly mean?”
Mr Plumphett coughed again. “Oh, nothing of consequence, to be sure. Nothing at all! Only that, if it should happen that Mr Ernest and Mr Frank were to hear of their father’s untimely death, they may, you know, rush to your side to console you in your time of sorrow. That would be a perfectly natural thing for them to do, you know. Perfectly natural.”
“If they are alive. Yes, I see. And if the boys are dead? Or remain undiscovered? What then?”
“Ah.” The papers rustled again. “The late Mr Allamont has made provision for that eventuality. Now, where is it? Ah, here is the passage. I will read it in its entirety.”
He cleared his throat noisily. “’The remainder of my estate I bequeath entirely to the eldest of my sons still living. If all my sons predecease me, or cannot be traced within a period of five years, then it shall go to one of my cousin Henry’s sons. I dislike them all equally, but they bear the family name, so whichever of them marries one of my daughters will inherit. If more than one of them does so, it shall be the one married to the elder of the girls. If none of them do so within five years, then the estate will pass to the church.’”
Amy tried to work out what all that meant, but it was too confusing.
Lady Sara nodded thoughtfully. “Interesting. So I have a few years in my home, at least. But what of the girls, Plumphett? How much will they get? My husband would never say what sum he had set aside for them.”
“A good sum, my lady, a very good sum. More than one hundred thousand pounds, to be divided equally amongst them.”
So much! Amy felt her eyes widen as she heard the amount. She had not had the least notion that her father had so much put by for them. A few thousand each, at best, was all they had hoped for. Beside her, Belle gave a little jolt of surprise. From their seats behind, Grace and Hope gasped. It was fortunate for them that their papa was not present to observe such lack of control.
“That is a higher figure than I had supposed,” Lady Sara said calmly. “I am glad of it, for the girls’ sake, even though it must diminish the estate. They will have not the least difficulty in finding husbands now.”
Mr Plumphett coughed again. “Unfortunately, my lady, there are… conditions.”
Lady Sara gave no sign of impatience. “Very well. Let us hear these conditions.”
“I shall read the relevant passage, my lady. Um… um… no, that is not it. Ah, here we are. ‘In order to instill the proper degree of meekness, obedience and regularity of habit, qualities which my daughters have to my regret sorely lacked to date, the terms of this bequest are that they must marry in the proper sequence, the eldest before the second eldest, the second eldest before the third, et cetera, so that the youngest marries last.’ “
Mr Plumphett paused, looking up at the ladies, but no one spoke. Amy felt herself incapable of uttering a word. Turning again to his papers, he continued, “’If this procedure is followed, each will receive her due settlement on her marriage. If one should marry out of turn, or refuse the duty of marriage altogether, then all the remaining amount of this bequest is to be given over to the charity closest to my heart, in Brinchester.’”
The silence in the room was absolute.
Lady Sara led the way across the hall. The girls formed a silent line in the proper order, just as always, and followed their Mama up the stairs to the winter parlour. Despite the meeting with Mr Plumphett, the regular routine of the household must be followed, and there was a little time left of the hour allotted to their stitchery. Under normal circumstances, this hour was enjoyed by all, for talking was not forbidden nor the subject prescribed. However, these were not normal circumstances.
They took their places around the big table, and picked up their work, from habit. But then they gazed around at each other, too astonished to say or do anything.
It was Hope who broke the silence, by bursting into tears. “It is all ruined!” she cried. “I shall never marry now, never!”
“Nonsense, dear,” Lady Sara said, attending calmly to her embroidery. “You will all marry, and marry well, now that your papa has made such excellent provision for you.”
“But I shall have to wait years and years, until everyone else is married, and I shall be dreadfully old, and perhaps Mr Burford will not wait so long.”
“Then he is not worth having,” said Belle crisply. “Really, Hope, you are barely seventeen, you are too young to be thinking of marriage yet anyway.”
Grace tutted at her, but Hope sobbed all the harder.
Belle picked up her tapestry and immediately set it down again. “I wonder if this will might be overturned, Mama? It seems rather peculiar of papa to make such very odd conditions, not just for us, but about the boys, too. Giving the estate to whichever of our cousins marries the oldest sister — that is very queer. Perhaps he was not quite himself when the will was drawn up?”
“Mr Plumphett seems to think there is nothing to be done about it,” Lady Sara said.
“He a well-respected county solicitor, but he does not know everything,” Belle said. “You could write to London for a more expert opinion on the matter.”
“Perhaps I shall consult Cousin Henry. But really, Belle, Mr Plumphett was quite clear that the will, for all its odd conditions, is most beneficial to you girls.”
“Yes, he is a man,” Belle said, with a wry smile. “Naturally he feels we should be thrilled at this improvement to our prospects, for what else should a woman wish for except a husband and children?”
“And there is a great deal of truth to that,” Lady Sara said gravely. “Marriage is an exalted station.”
“Of course, and I am certain we all aspire to it, but we should like to choose the time and the gentleman for ourselves.”
“I hope you do not harbour romantic notions, Belle,” her mother said repressively. “Love is so fleeting, it is no foundation for a lifelong commitment like marriage. A respectable gentleman with a good income — that is all that is required, and no nonsense about choosing, either, for one such is as good as any other. I depend upon each of you to accept the first offer you receive, for what is there to wait for?”
The sisters exchanged glances, but none of them felt able to argue the point. Despite her unexpectedly large dowry, Amy could not quite imagine having more than one offer to choose from. One gentleman willing to marry her was as much as she dared hope for, and she would be very happy to have her future settled. She could not quite understand all the details of the will, despite Mr Plumphett’s explanations, but one thing was very clear — it fell to her, as the eldest, to marry first, so that each of her sisters would be able to marry in the proper sequence.
“In that case, we must begin our campaign,” Grace said.
“Campaign?” Lady Sara said.
“To marry Amy off, of course.”
“Really, Grace, your papa is barely in his grave. You must not give a thought to marriage for at least a twelvemonth. Six months of full mourning and six months of half mourning for you girls. There are those who observe a shorter time, but I cannot permit less for a man of your papa’s position in the world.”
“Oh, I am not proposing anything unsuitable, Mama,” Grace said. “I know we must live very quiet for a while. But gentlemen will pay condolence visits, so we may take advantage of that, may we not? Amy shall be put forward to be noticed, since she must be first. Though it will not be easy, for she is quite an old maid already and who will want her at four and twenty? But we should make a list of possible suitors, gentlemen of our acquaintance who might be tempted by one sixth of one hundred thousand pounds — whatever that comes to.”
“Seventeen thousand pounds,” said Belle. “And Amy has never lacked suitors, sister. But the first names on any list must be our cousins, you know.”
“But they are quite horrid,” Grace said. “Why should she want to marry any of them?”
“Because if one of them marries Amy, he will have the estate, if Ernest and Frank cannot be found,” Belle said. “That must be a very tempting prospect in addition to all her other attractions, do you not agree? And then Amy will be mistress of Allamont Hall.”
“Oh, is that how the cousins come into it?” Grace said. “Yes, I see. That is clever, Belle. Very well, they shall be at the top of the list, and Amy may take her pick of them, if she chooses.”
“Grace, dear, your finger is bleeding onto your work,” Belle said. “Did you prick yourself with the needle?”
Amy bent her head to the torn gown of Grace’s she was mending, letting them talk, but saying nothing. As yet, none of it was quite real, and for all Grace’s schemes, she could not quite grasp the enormity of the change in all their fortunes.
She did not know what to think. What did Papa mean by leaving their dowries in such terms? Was he forcing her to marry, whether she wished it or not? Would she be able to find a husband, even with so much money? And what if two gentlemen were to offer for her? How could she possibly decide between them, without her father to guide her?
For all the four and twenty years of her life, her conduct had been governed entirely by her father’s wishes. Now, for the first time, she had no idea what he wanted her to do. She was terrified.