Dulcie: Chapter 1: A Wager

Dulcie could scarcely believe her ears. “You want me to do what?”

Connie sighed. “I am not asking you to walk to Brinchester, sister, or trail through muddy fields. There is no need even to go into the village, for the schoolhouse is nearer than that. It is no distance through the woods, and you would be there and back in an hour, or not much above it.”

“But I had planned to look through the journals you brought from London to decide on how to trim my new bonnet.”

“And you will have the rest of the day to do so,” Connie snapped. “I would go myself, but I must go to Brinchester with Mama and Hope if I am to have my clothes in time for the wedding.”

“Why cannot Grace go to the schoolhouse?” Dulcie said.

“Because she has already agreed to go with Miss Bellows to High Brafton Farm to take some things for poor Mrs Tarpin. You would not have wanted that task, I know, for it is a long walk over the fields and through Brafton Woods. I am giving you the easiest commission, dear.”

“I do not know why Jess Drummond thinks she is so important that we have to run round after her all the time,” Dulcie said.

“Oh, Dulcie, have a little compassion,” Connie said. “She is very sick, and although she has been bled and leeched repeatedly, nothing has answered. Mrs Cooper says that this broth of hers has never failed yet. It is her mother’s receipt, it seems. Please, will you go? I should be happier knowing that Jess has this today, and the servants cannot be spared from their duties.”

“Oh, very well, if I must. I suppose I can call in at Mr Wiseman’s shop to make the journey worth my while.”

“Thank you, dear,” Connie said. “We should always show kindness to our neighbours in need.”

“It is not for you to preach at me,” Dulcie said sulkily.

“Perhaps not, but with Mama away, I must do my best to take her place.”

“You may have charge of the household and give orders to the servants, but you have no right to give orders to me.”

Connie sighed. “I give you no orders, dear, I merely make suggestions. But if I see you in error, I feel obliged, as both sister and closest friend, to give you a little hint. I sincerely wish that you would be kinder to those who need your help without so much argument, for it is very trying, I declare. Why can you not be more obliging?”

“I do not in the least mind being obliging,” Dulcie cried, “but not to Jess Drummond, who has every advantage of beauty and wit, and enjoyed a splendid season in London, and instead of being grateful, she takes to her bed and sulks because she could not have the man she wanted.”

“What a nasty, jealous thing to say!” Connie spat. “I despair of you, Dulcie. Such selfishness! If you want to make a good marriage, then you must strive to make yourself likable. Gentlemen do not like a waspish sort of wife.”

“Just because you are betrothed to a marquess, you think you know everything about love and men and marriage,” Dulcie said heatedly. “Well, I shall make a very good marriage, you may be sure of that!” And with that, she stormed out.

~~~~~

Alex Drummond was tired. He had thought that being a village schoolmaster would be a quiet but rewarding life, with small faces gazing raptly up at him as he imparted the mysteries of the alphabet and unfolded the wonder of books to their innocent minds. Instead, he had six boisterous boarders, who shuffled restlessly on their benches, whispered behind their hands and raced each other to the door as soon as he released them. At least he was not required to feed and board them himself, for the cottage was too small. Instead, they stayed at the parsonage, which kept them out of the way, but also deprived him of a little extra money. Apart from the boarders, there were a handful of farmers’ and millers’ children, who turned up unexpectedly for odd days, dirty and ragged, whenever their fathers could spare a coin or two, and disappeared for weeks on end to help with the harvest or lambing or painting the barn. It was dispiriting.

When he was not teaching, he was digging the small patch of ground behind the house, and watching his potatoes anxiously for signs of… he was not very sure what maladies might afflict potatoes, but if he saw a leaf disfigured with a brown or black patch, or a particularly noxious-looking beetle, he immediately fell into gloom that they would starve over the winter. And then there was the pig. Never had a beast caused him such worry before, except his horse once or twice, and that was understandable. The pig had seemed such a harmless creature when it first arrived, a little pink, bald thing scampering round its pen. But oh Lord, as it got bigger! Every time it lay down, he thought it was on the point of expiring, and it lay down a lot. His sister Jess was no help. She would just laugh, and say, “Can we eat it yet?” and then run away consumed by laughter.

He never imagined he would be quite so glad of the respite on the Sabbath. He had always previously found the prohibitions tiresome, but now he was heartily glad of a day when his only required activity was to walk to church and back twice. Mr Endercott, who held the living at Lower Brinford, was such a long-winded and soporific preacher that Alex even managed a nap during the sermons, with only Jess’s kicks when he snored to disturb him.

He tried not to repine too much on the life he and Jess had left behind. Two years ago, he had had his own curricle and a magnificent hunter, and the promise of one of his father’s subsidiary estates. It had made him one of the county’s most eligible bachelors, and he had even begun to consider the prospect of marriage. That dream had died with his father, and the discovery of all his debts. The promised estate had been sold, and now he lived in poverty far from home, still moving on the fringes of society, but for how much longer? He could not go on patching and mending his good coats indefinitely, and he could certainly not afford to replace them.

Then there was Jess. It had seemed like such a good idea to let her go to London, pretending to be on the point of a betrothal to the Marquess of Carrbridge. She had had a real season in the very best circles, and, with her beauty and liveliness and accomplishments, had been a great success, if the reports were to believed. Miss Endercott, the clergyman’s sister who kept house for him, had brought him some of the notices in the London newspapers which had mentioned Jess along with the usual array of duchesses and viscountesses and the like. ‘Miss Jessica Drummond of Wester Strathmorran in the county of Morranshire, Scotland’, dancing with this or that earl or viscount. It had made him so proud of his sister. If only she had not met Mr Middleton, who had stolen away her heart and offered her nothing but—

Alex could not bear to think of that. Jess had refused Middleton, naturally, but she had returned home a shadow of her former lively self, and had gradually sunk into despondency and grief, and, inevitably, a physical decline to which there seemed to be no end.

When he had finished his meagre breakfast, and their maid Polly was clattering away in the scullery, he went into the kitchen and made some chocolate. Then he climbed the stairs to Jess’s little room under the eaves. A quick knock on the door, and, after a moment of silence, he pushed it open and went in.

“Are you awake? I have brought you some chocolate, made just how you like it. Miss Connie Allamont was so kind as to bring some the other day, remember? Jess? Are you awake, dear?”

The covers on the bed writhed a little, and then a head of dark curls emerged. “Alex?” a muffled voice said.

“Indeed it is. I have brought you some chocolate to drink.”

“You may leave it on the table. I will drink it in a little while.”

“You said that last time, and then went back to sleep and forgot all about it. Can you sit up, if I help you? For I do think it would do you some good if you could drink just a little, you know.”

With his help, she struggled to a half-sitting position, and managed three sips before she was exhausted. “Delicious,” she said, her voice weak. As soon as she lay down again, she closed her eyes.

He straightened the blankets, so rough after the silken sheets they had grown up with, and quietly crept out of the room.

~~~~~

Dulcie was cross to begin with, after her spat with Connie, and became crosser still before she had even left the Hall grounds. The pot of broth was heavy in her basket, and her woollen cloak was too thick for summer wear and now she was hot. As if that were not enough, her old straw bonnet was scratching her ear. She should have gone upstairs to fetch her spencer and one of her pretty caps, but Connie was up there and she did not want to meet her again.

Once she and Connie had been like twins, doing everything together, sharing every thought, as close as two sisters could possibly be. But Connie had become so grand as soon as she had accepted the Marquess’s proposal, and once she was a marchioness there would be no bearing her hauteur. Dulcie would have to address her as ‘my lady’, and curtsy to her, and give precedence everywhere. It was such a lowering thought. Dulcie had always secretly hoped that she would be the first of the sisters to catch a titled husband, and how was she to outrank Connie now? It would take a duke to do it, and there were only a few of those, most of them old or married.

What would become of her once Connie was married? There would only be Grace and Hope left, and they were just as close as Dulcie and Connie had ever been. There would be no room for Dulcie. She would be quite alone. Who could she chide and tease and quarrel with and lark about with? Who would help her trim bonnets and mend her gowns and tell her that she looked fetching in a new pelisse?

A worse thought — how was she ever to find a husband now? Under the terms of her father’s will, the sisters had to marry in the proper order or forfeit the handsome dowry he had provided for them. Amy, Belle and Connie had all succeeded, and now it was Dulcie’s turn. She had to find someone to marry or else she would be a spinster all her life, and her younger sisters with her.

She was practically an old maid already — three and twenty, and not a single offer to boast of. In a small corner of her mind was the thought that perhaps Connie was right, and Dulcie was just a horrid person that nobody liked, and that no man of standing in society would ever willingly marry her, even for twenty thousand pounds. Apart from the cousins, of course, who stood to inherit Allamont Hall if they married one or other of the sisters, but James had a wife now and as for Mark and Hugo—! She shuddered, and hoped she was never that desperate for a husband.

By the time she reached the edge of the woods, the roofs of the village in sight, she was hot and miserable and not at all happy with her appointed role as benefactress to the poor and sick. To make matters worse, the brambles along the lane to the schoolhouse reached long, spiked fingers towards her, catching on her gown and tearing the delicate muslin, and scratching her face.

It was not surprising, therefore, that Dulcie was in something of a temper when she arrived at the little cottage that served as schoolhouse. It had been the gamekeeper’s cottage once, in the days when the Allamont estate had boasted extensive shooting land. Most of that land had been sold off or leased out to neighbours, since Dulcie’s father had never much cared for the sport. When the old gamekeeper had died a year or two ago, Grace had taken over the cottage for a school.

It was not much — just a schoolroom and parlour at the front, and a kitchen and scullery at the back, with some bedrooms tucked under the eaves. Behind the house were a few outhouses and a modest plot of land for chickens and a pig and some vegetables. Still, it looked neat and cared for. The window frames and doors had been repainted, there were flowers growing around the front door and the parlour had fresh curtains.

Polly, the maid of all work, was scrubbing the front step. She was a solidly-built woman of some thirty years, plain-faced, with round red cheeks that made her look like an apple. “Oh, Miss Allamont! Have you come to see Miss Jess?”

“I have brought some broth for her to try. Our cook thought it might help.”

“That’s right kind of you, so it is. Would you mind goin’ in through the scullery door, ‘cause I’ve just mopped the hall floor, and your feet’s a bit dusty, like.”

“What, like a servant? I hardly think so, Polly.”

She pushed open the front door and strode into the hall.

A man’s blond head appeared from the schoolroom door. “Polly? Oh, it is you, Miss Dulcie. I thought it must be a crisis, for Polly to walk over her clean floor.”

Dulcie looked behind her at the trail of footprints. “Oh. She can mop it again, I daresay.”

“Makin’ extra work,” Polly muttered, banging the bucket about.

“Well, never mind,” Drummond said. “It will not take a moment to wipe over again.” But Polly harrumphed, and disappeared round the outside of the house. Drummond sighed. “Do come inside, Miss Dulcie. It is kind in you to call.” But his smile was strained.

“I have brought some broth for Jess. Our cook’s mother always found it efficacious.”

His face lightened. “Oh, how good you are to carry it all this way, and in this heat, too. It has been so hot that all my vegetables are wilting, and no doubt I shall be spending the evening watering again. Please, will you come through to the kitchen? I have no tea or coffee to offer you today, but the well water is cool and very refreshing.”

He set down the books he was carrying and led the way to the kitchen at the back of the house. Polly was there before them, glaring reproachfully at Dulcie.

“What do we need to do with this broth?” Drummond said. “Just heat it on the fire?”

“How should I know?” Dulcie snapped. “I am not a cook.”

“I can take care of it, Mr Drummond,” Polly said, taking the pot from Dulcie. “Although I ain’t a cook neither.”

“Well, really!” Dulcie said. “Such impertinence! Just because I do not like to be sent round to the kitchen door like a servant.”

Polly put her hands on her hips and was about to respond with equal vigour, but Alex Drummond waved his hands placatingly. “Thank you, Polly. Perhaps you could see to the goat now? If you would be so good.”

She snorted, glared at Dulcie and then stamped away through the scullery.

“You must excuse Polly,” Drummond said, running his hands through his hair. “We are all rather fraught at the moment, and so anxious for Jess.”

“There is no improvement in her condition?”

“Far from it. Up until a day or so ago, she was able to get up and help a little — podding peas and so forth, chores that could be done while sitting. But now she keeps to her bed constantly and it is as much as she can do to drink a little water. Dr Torrington can find no cause for her malady, and no remedy to help.”

“It is very likely a consequence of her stay in London,” Dulcie said, not much interested in Jess’s illness. “Too much gaiety is very debilitating.”

“Hardly so,” he said, his face darkening. “She may have been out enjoying herself every evening, but she slept late, ate the best food and had nothing at all to concern her. But she was completely taken in by this man she met there, this Jeffrey Middleton, who is not a gentleman, in my estimation. Her disappointment, combined with all the work she has to do here, is enough to account for her illness.”

“Polly does most of the work, I imagine,” Dulcie said. “What does Jess have to do, apart from a bit of cooking?”

“A bit of—!” He reddened and turned away from her, and when he turned back to her his words were clipped and angry. “I assure you, when she is well Jess works from first light until dusk. She takes care of the chickens, milks the goat and helps Polly with the laundry, for we cannot even afford to send it to Mrs Greenwood, and that is not what she is accustomed to. It is no wonder my poor sister has become exhausted and allowed this debilitation to overtake her. If only we could afford better food for her, and someone to take care of her. I fear for her life, truly I do, Miss Dulcie.”

“I am sure she will recover soon enough,” Dulcie said, not at all deterred. “We had a housemaid once who took to her bed like that, and could not be got to do the work she was paid to do. Papa beat her and she recovered quick enough after that.”

“Are you suggesting that Jess is malingering?” There was no mistaking the anger in his voice now. “How dare you!”

Dulcie raised her chin defiantly. “I do not like your tone, Mr Drummond. It is my opinion that a lot of these vapours are mere figments of the imagination, and that with a sufficiently strong inducement, the person may discover themselves to be quite well after all.”

“Quite well? Are you mad? I suggest that Jess is in mortal danger and the only sympathy you can offer is to suggest that her illness is all in her head?”

“That or laziness,” she said with a shrug. “She has got very grand, after mingling with the cream of London society, and now she does not like the little bit of work she has to do.”

“Jess works harder than anyone I know!” he answered hotly.

“Pfft! A little bit of cooking, and folding sheets once a week — that is nothing at all.”

“I should like to see you do everything Jess does!”

“It would be easy! Anyone could do it.”

“Very well, then, if you think it so easy, you come here and do all Jess’s chores.”

“Now you are being silly, and you are shouting at me, as well. I am leaving at once. You are very rude, Mr Drummond.”

“Not as rude as you are, young lady, and at least I am not spoilt and ignorant, like you.”

“I am not spoilt or ignorant. You just do not like to hear the truth!” she cried.

“Truth? You will have to demonstrate it. If you really believe that every task Jess carries out is easy, then prove it to me. Come here and do everything that Jess does — or did, when she was well enough.”

“And what about her? She gets to sit about like a lady, I suppose, while I do her chores. A fine arrangement!”

“Well, why not? She is a lady, far more so than you. She should be the one at the Hall, wearing silk and diamonds, with servants to do her bidding and enough food to eat. She would not be ill if she were better looked after!”

“Oh, so she is to go to the Hall and play the grand lady while I scrub floors, is that the idea?”

His eyebrows lifted in surprise. “An excellent suggestion, Miss Allamont, I thank you. Indeed, that would be splendid.”

“Nonsense! I did not mean—”

But he continued relentlessly. “You take over Jess’s role here, while she goes to the Hall in your place to recruit her strength. Do that for a month, or until Jess is recovered, and I will believe all you say, but I wager you would not last a day.”

“Of course I would!”

“Prove it!”

She was too angry to consider her words. Her chin lifted. “Very well, then, I will!”