WARNING! Contains spoilers for Amy!
Belle looked up from her book at the insistent rat-tat-tat on the front door. Then the bell jangled again, distantly. An impatient visitor. After no more than ten seconds, the knocker sounded once more, and for longer. She smiled, shaking her head. That would not bring Young to the door one jot more quickly. The butler had a nice sense of what was appropriate for the reception of guests at Allamont Hall, and a stately tread to the front door was an integral part of it. The bell began again, abruptly cut off as the door creaked open.
The window seat at the top of the stairs was Belle’s favourite reading spot. When her father had been alive, she and her five sisters had been required to sit primly at desks in the schoolroom for bookwork, supervised by their governess, even though they were all out. Now, they could do as they pleased. Most of the others spent their time in the drawing room, gossiping over their needlework, but Belle liked to read in peace.
Below her, male voices, the quiet, measured tones of Young, and a louder voice, not one she recognised. Then silence fell, and she turned back to her book. The slow step of Young mounting the stairs drew her to the realisation that she was not, after all, to be left in peace to read. With a sigh, she marked her place and shut the book with a snap.
“Yes, Young, what is it?”
“I beg your pardon for disturbing you, Miss Belle, but there is a man downstairs who wishes to speak with a member of the family. In the absence of Lady Sara and Miss Allamont…”
“Yes, I see.” Belle, as the second daughter of the house, was the next to be appealed to for any domestic matter. “But if it is business, he should go to Mr Plumphett, you know.”
“I suggested exactly that, Miss Belle, but he has already applied to Mr Plumphett and received no satisfaction. Furthermore, he has written to Lady Sara and not yet had the honour of a reply.”
“Mama is away in London so often that it is not a surprise that she is behind with her correspondence, and I daresay a solicitor has many calls on his time of great import. But I do not quite see what I am expected to do.”
Young hesitated, with a little ‘hem’ of distress. “Far be it from me to offer advice, Miss Belle, but I believe you should speak to the young man. It is a family matter, as I understand it.”
“What can you mean, Young?”
Another gentle ‘hem’. “He claims to be your brother.”
Belle experienced a sudden rush of joy. “Then it is Ernest! Or Frank! They are found at last! Oh, after all these years, such happiness!” But something in Young’s face told her that it was not, in fact, one of the sons of the house who had run away several years earlier. “Not Ernest or Frank? Then what can he mean by saying such a thing? I am quite at a loss to understand it.”
She knew at once that the situation could not be comprehended by sitting on the window seat wondering at it. The only way to determine the visitor’s intent was to speak to him herself.
“Very well,” she said, rising and shaking out her skirts. “I shall see him.”
The young man was certainly the correct age to be one of her brothers, for he looked to be no more than one or two and twenty. His features were pleasant although undistinguished, and he was rather well-dressed in garments that looked newly made, although perhaps not in the first style. A local man who had recently come into money, perhaps.
It was a thought that set her immediately on her guard. Perhaps he was the sort of person who preyed on recently bereaved families, to his own advantage. He would wheedle his way into the family, playing on their good nature with his taking ways, and then… Well, she was not sure how such a scheme would work, but all her suspicions were aroused.
“Ah, Miss Belle Allamont, I presume. Jack Barnett at your service.” His accent was local, not that of an educated man, and he was certainly no gentleman.
“How may I help you, Mr Barnett?”
He laughed, but it was not a pleasant sound. “Indeed, I don’t believe you can offer me any assistance at this moment, Miss Allamont. I am quite easy, and not in need of aid.”
“Then what brings you here, sir?”
“Why, I came to see the house, of course, and a splendid building I find it to be. Quite splendid. And you have some fine paintings. That is a magnificent specimen over there, above that table.”
“The one over the console? It is indifferently executed.”
“Ah. Yes, but the subject is magnificent. Who is she?”
“That is my mother, the Lady Sara Allamont.”
“Ah, I see. So beautiful. But this must have been painted some years ago, I’m sure, for she looks too young to be the mother of grown daughters.”
“She sat for it shortly after her marriage. What exactly do you want, Mr Barnett?”
He was not in the least discomfited, his raucous laugh echoing around the high ceiling of the hall. “But I’ve already told you — I’m come to see this house, Miss Allamont — or may I call you Belle?”
She almost stamped her foot in frustration. Such impudence! “Indeed you may not, sir, and unless you have a very good reason to be here, and better than you have previously expressed, I am afraid I must ask you to leave this house.”
“Well, now, that’s not very kind to your own flesh and blood. We’re kin, Belle, so no need to be high and mighty.”
“I do not know you, sir, and you are no kin of mine. Please go at once.”
“But that’s not true. Didn’t your father ever mention me? He always acknowledged me as his son, and now I’m come to claim my inheritance. In his will, you know, the whole estate goes to the eldest son. Since Ernest and Frank aren’t here, that’s me, isn’t it?”
And he laughed again mirthlessly, a harsh sound to Belle’s ears.
“This cannot be!”
Connie and Dulcie were twin images of outrage. The two sisters were seated at the worktable where were spread out all the makings of a bonnet, littering the surface with pins and thread and ribbons of many hues and a great collection of feathers.
“What a liar he must be to tell such stories without the slightest shame,” Dulcie said.
“Perhaps he is not sound in his mind,” Connie said. “He must be quite mad, I am convinced. Then perhaps he truly believes he belongs to this family. Someone has told him, I daresay, that both our brothers are gone and may be dead, and now in his addled brain he thinks he is one of them.”
Belle pulled out a chair and sat, too, feeling her legs quite unequal to the task of carrying her a moment longer. “He did not seem very addled to me. On the contrary, he appeared to be perfectly lucid.”
“Indeed, I am sure you are right, for now that I consider the matter, I do not think Young would have admitted him to the house at all if there were any doubt of his sanity,” Dulcie said. “Jack Barnett’s sanity, I mean, not Young’s.” She and Connie both giggled.
“Sisters, really! This is not a matter for jesting.”
“But it is so strange!” Connie said. “Nevertheless, I shall endeavour to be serious. I believe he must have made up the whole of it. Such effrontery! I can scarce believe that he would come here with such lies.”
Much as Belle hoped that the young man’s claim was entirely baseless, she could not so easily dismiss it. “I am as astonished as you are, but I do not see what this person would have to gain by inventing such a thing.”
“Why the house of course!” Connie cried. “What else could it be? The entire estate and all Papa’s money must be worth a considerable sum, would you not say? A prize well worth a venture for any unscrupulous thief.”
Belle shook her head at that. “And yet such valuable items must pass strictly according to law and the terms of Papa’s will, so any thief would have to demonstrate his entitlement. No one can appear from nowhere and claim an inheritance without proof. What we need to do is to find out exactly what was written in Papa’s will.”
At that moment, the two youngest Allamont sisters, Grace and Hope, came giggling into the room, together with the sisters’ former governess, and now companion, Miss Bellows, who had accompanied them on their walk to the village. Belle was obliged to explain the story all over again, and answer the same shocked denials, objections and questions.
“You should apply to Mr Plumphett for advice at once,” Miss Bellows said. “He will be certainly be able to clarify the precise terms of your late father’s will, and if there have been any legal dealings with this supposed son in the past, then he will know something of the circumstances.”
“Supposed son?” Belle said, catching at the hopeful words. “You think then that it might be a fiction after all?”
“I have no opinion on that,” she said. “But it appears to me that two claims have been made. Firstly, the young man claims to be your father’s son. Secondly, he claims, in the absence of Ernest and Frank, that it is his right to inherit Allamont Hall. Both of those must be tested and proved to the satisfaction of the law. He has a great deal to do before he can move in here and begin to rearrange the furniture.”
“But I do not quite understand,” Hope said. “How is it we have never heard that Papa was married before he met Mama?”
“Hope dear, he was not married before that,” Belle said.
“Oh but then how… Oh! You mean…? Oh!”
“Indeed it must be so. If Jack Barnett is indeed Papa’s son, then I fear that Papa has sinned rather grievously.”
The eldest daughter of Allamont Hall, Amy, returned home in time to dress for dinner. She was accompanied, as always these days, by Mr Ambleside. They were not officially engaged to be married, but it was widely known that the banns would be read as soon as a year had passed since the late Mr Allamont’s death, when Amy and her sisters would be out of mourning.
Belle always smiled when she saw her sister. Such a glow of happiness about her! It warmed her heart to see Amy so contented.
“Did you have a lovely day, sister?” Belle said.
“Oh yes!” Amy blushed prettily. “Mrs Cormet showed me everything in the house, and we talked a great deal about linen and china. Mr Ambleside was quite right to suggest inviting Miss Endercott to accompany us, for she made some excellent suggestions and knows a vast amount about domestic matters. All those hours we spent in the schoolroom, sister, learning Greek, and reciting the Kings and Queens of England, and the lengths of every river in Europe, yet no one thought to explain about the proper care of silverware or the rotation of linens or how to deal with a lazy housemaid. I shall have so much to learn. But I may leave everything to Mrs Cormet, may I not, Mr Ambleside? She manages everything perfectly.”
“Indeed you may. You need not worry about any of these domestic matters. So you may be quite easy.”
“Thank you! That is such a relief. And then in the afternoon, while Miss Endercott rested, I talked to the head gardener, Mr Kennedy, who is splendidly knowledgeable. He will be most helpful in bringing all my plans to fruition. Mr Ambleside has given me leave to do as I please with the garden, you know.”
“He will be a most obliging husband, I am sure,” Belle said. “Which is, of course, the very best kind to have. I must hope to be half so fortunate in my own husband.”
“You will find someone wonderful, sister, I am sure,” Amy said. “As soon as we are out of mourning, you will be able to go to balls and card parties and routs and all manner of entertainments. You will meet any number of delightful gentlemen, I am sure.”
“I daresay I have met every eligible gentleman in the county already,” Belle said, with a smile. “In mourning or out of it, the society we move in does not change a great deal from season to season.”
“Then you must try a different society,” Ambleside said at once. “I have it in mind that the future Mrs Ambleside might wish to visit London in the spring, and that she might also wish her favourite sister to accompany her. What do you say to that, Miss Allamont? Miss Belle?”
Amy clapped her hands in glee. “I should like it extremely! You are so kind to me, Mr Ambleside. Belle? Why so glum? Do you not like the idea?”
“Oh yes, and I take it very kindly in you, sir, to consider it, but I fear I am too much needed here to jaunter about the country. With Mama away so much, and our sisters given over to frivolous pursuits, there is no one else to attend to the smooth running of the house.”
“I have not the right to offer you advice, Miss Allamont,” Ambleside said to her, his voice serious. “However, it is my opinion that everyone is entitled to enjoy themselves occasionally. A month in London away from domestic cares would do you a great deal of good, and expose you to a far superior society than is available here. I cannot claim to move in the first circles, but there will be more variety than is met with in such a small county as Brinshire. Will you at least consider the idea?”
“I will, sir. You have my gratitude for your kindness.”
“You must come, Belle,” Amy said. “Just think how many eligible gentlemen you will meet, and all with titles and fortunes, I make no doubt. Think how much your prospects would improve. At the very least, you would not need to depend on Grace making a list of possible suitors, as I had to do.”
“Grace made a list?” Ambleside said, with lively interest. “Was my name on it? I do hope I was on the list.”
Amy blushed again. “Of course!”
“And who else? Oh, but I believe I can guess. Our local heroes, Sir Osborne Hardy and Mr Wills, no doubt. I had nothing to fear from them.”
“Our cousins were on the list, too, since they would inherit if they married one of us,” Amy said. “It would have been very comfortable to stay here at the Hall, and James was quite persistent, but I must confess that I do not quite like him. There is something… unsettling about him.”
“He is not a very steady young man,” Ambleside said. “And with no title and not a great deal of money, he would not have been much of a catch for you, my dear. You are far better off with me.”
That brought another blush and a little giggle, as she twisted the skirts of her gown between her fingers.
“As to titles, the Marquess of Carrbridge was also on the list,” Belle said. “He would have been an excellent match for Amy, if he had only had the good sense to put in an appearance when he was required.”
“Now there you have me. If the Marquess had ever deigned to visit his great-aunt, I should have been quite in the shade, I am sure.”
“Oh no!” Amy said, casting adoring eyes in his direction. “Indeed, I should never have aimed so high. A Marquess! The very idea! But Belle is quite clever enough to run a great household, so she may look as high as she chooses, especially since— Oh, may I speak of it, Mr Ambleside? Your discussions with Mr Plumphett, I mean.”
“I do not see why your sisters should not know, my dear. I have been talking to Mr Plumphett about settlements and so forth, Miss Belle, and it appears that the portion your papa set aside for you all has grown. You will now each have in excess of twenty thousand pounds.”
“Twenty thousand? That is quite astonishing,” Belle said. “How is it possible for funds to grow so much in less than a year? Two or three percent, perhaps, four at most, but not this much.”
“There may have been some fortunate investments,” Ambleside said.
“May have been? Does Mr Plumphett not know?”
“He does not have the management of the funds. There is a trustee, a solicitor, who looks after it, and Mr Plumphett has to apply to him for information. He was told the total amount in the account, but not the reason for the rapid increase. I wonder that your father never told you about all this.”
“He never talked about money, and none of us dared to question him,” Belle said. “Such matters are not for ladies, he always said.”
“And there is a great deal of truth to that,” Ambleside said. “Business matters are troublesome and complicated. They are much better left to a man to take care of.”
“Oh, yes,” Amy said. “I am so glad I do not have think about such horrid things as money and… and everything else.”
“Money is only horrid when one does not have enough of it,” Belle said. “Which we have, it appears.”
“And I am glad of it for your sake, sister,” Amy said. “With such a substantial fortune, you will have any number of suitors vying for your hand, and you will not be forced to consider the dreadful prospect of marrying Cousin James.”
Belle laughed. “I do not want suitors to vie for my hand, sister, dear. I cannot think of anything less appealing. To be dragged through one public ball after another at Brinchester, with all the dowagers whispering behind their fans. ‘Did you hear, she has twenty thousand pounds? Terribly plain, but think of the money!’ They would be lining up the unpromising younger sons for me, or the gouty uncles who drink themselves into a stupor after dinner, or the penniless clergymen or army officers. Or perhaps if I am very fortunate, I might be able to secure an impoverished Honourable. No, Amy, I am not so desperate as all that.”
“Oh.” Amy’s eyes were round. “But Belle, you must marry. We all have to marry in the proper order, Papa said so in his will, and if you do not, then none of the others will have their dowries.”
“I have every intention of marrying,” Belle said. “As soon as you and Mr Ambleside are safely wed, I plan to accept Cousin James.”
“Oh, Belle, no!” Amy said, shocked.