Hope watched dispiritedly as the agents made their farewells to her mother. They were very respectful, almost obsequious to her, bowing as low as they could without falling over, every sentence milady this and your ladyship that. Nevertheless, the task they were charged with could not but be deeply unpleasant to everyone. To have people crawling all over Allamont Hall, measuring, inspecting, looking under carpets and behind paintings, and silently assessing the value of the property was unspeakable.
The pleasure in their eyes as they moved from room to room was clear to see. Allamont House was a splendid property, built in the grand style common in the last century, with well-proportioned formal rooms and all the facilities required for living in the country. It was perhaps a little old-fashioned now, but nothing that some slight refurbishment could not ameliorate, and with fine pleasure grounds and woodlands. Yes, no doubt the agents could not believe their good fortune in having such an admirable property fall into their laps like a ripe plum.
As soon as they had left, Lady Sara whisked upstairs to her sitting room. She was presently in one of her cold, withdrawn moods, and who could blame her? She must be as downhearted as Hope this summer. In just three months from now, they would be thrown out of their home, and mother and daughter would be obliged to move to the Dower House, and what comfort would be theirs then?
She saw Hugo watching her, his face as dark as hers must be.
“Come,” he said, with a flick of his head. “Have a glass of ratafia, or something stronger, if you prefer. Nothing else to do but drink and be sorrowful together.”
She followed him into the book room, once a cheerless place devoid of ornament or picture, where she and her sisters had recited their lessons or read from the Scriptures or translated a passage of Greek under her father’s hawk-like eyes, trembling with fear of his disapprobation. He was long gone, and since Hugo had taken over the management of the Hall, it had become a warm, friendly room, books and papers and rolled-up maps scattered on every surface, and his three dogs lolling in front of the fire. Hugo was no more than a distant cousin, but he and his family were their only relatives who lived nearby.
“I still do not understand why they need to measure everything so soon,” she said for perhaps the fiftieth time. “Why could they not wait until October? For the church cannot have the Hall before then, can they? They must wait the full five years for the terms of Papa’s will to take effect, surely?”
“They cannot have possession, that is true,” he said, pouring ratafia for her and Madeira for himself. “They have to wait until the very last day, because there is always a small possibility that one or other of your brothers will turn up to claim his inheritance. But October is a difficult time of year. Houses are much easier to sell in the summer, when people may travel more easily to inspect a property. The Bishop wants to hold an open day for prospective buyers to look around before the weather turns bad, and to do that the occasion must be advertised widely, and to do that they must know the exact numbers of rooms of each type, and their proportions, and the size of the linen cupboard and so forth. And then there is the value of the estate. Someone is to come next week to inspect the accounts, to determine the exact income from the tenants and holdings.”
“You can tell them that to the penny.”
He smiled then. He was an odd looking man, far too thin, dark of hair and eye, handsome, she supposed, in a melancholy, brooding sort of way, but his strange little lopsided smile gave his face a quirky charm.
“They will not take my word for it,” he said, with a lift of one shoulder. “I am not to be trusted, it seems, since I have a personal interest.”
“I suppose that is understandable.” Her voice trembled slightly, her tears not far away. “Oh Hugo, this is so horrid! I do so wish we could stay in the Hall.”
She could have bitten her tongue for her foolishness, for his face lit up eagerly.
“You do not have to leave it, Hope, you know that. Marry me, and we can keep the Hall. You would not even have to change your name. Should you not like to be Mrs Hugo Allamont, the mistress of Allamont Hall? For I tell you honestly, I should very much like to be Mr Hugo Allamont, the master of Allamont Hall.”
How many times had he made the same speech, or some variation of it? And all because of a casual line in her father’s will — if the long-lost sons could not be found, then any of the three cousins could inherit if they married one of the daughters. Hope was the last of the daughters now, for all her sisters were married. And Hugo was the last of the cousins, since James was married and Mark had gone off to Scotland to become a teacher.
“I should not mind being mistress of Allamont Hall,” she said, as she had told him so many times. “I already am, in many ways, for Mama takes no interest in the household. And you have already taken the role of master here, and we are most grateful to you for that. But I am not sure whether I want to marry anyone at all. Although,” she added punctiliously, “it is most obliging in you to offer, Hugo, and if I were minded to marry at all, you would be my first choice.”
He raised an eyebrow. “So it is not my person in particular that repels you but the very notion of marriage? Your sisters are all happily wedded.”
“Oh yes, and no one could be more delighted for them than I. But they were lucky — they each met a man who adored them and looked at them with fire in his eyes. I was so fortunate as to experience that once, long ago, and I cannot settle for less, Hugo. I cannot marry a man who does not look at me in that way. And then — there is your mama,” she added in a low voice. “I do not want to die because of a baby growing wrong.”
“I can understand that,” he said seriously. “Poor Mama! How she suffered at the end, when even the laudanum began to fail her. And many women die during the birthing of a baby. It is a terrible, dangerous business.”
“Oh yes! I have not forgot poor Mrs Wills! Such a tragedy, and Mr Wills so grief-stricken.”
They were both silent for a while, Hope sipping her ratafia and nibbling a bonbon, and Hugo rubbing the ears of one of his dogs.
“You know, Hope,” he said suddenly, leaning forward in excitement, “there is a way around this. We could marry but not… erm, not be husband and wife, if you see what I mean.”
“How could we be married but not be husband and wife… oh!” She blushed crimson. “You mean, no bedroom… erm, happenings.”
“Exactly! A marriage solely of convenience. So long as we marry before mid-October, and there is no sign of Ernest and Frank, we would inherit the Hall. What do you say?”
“But then there would never be a man who would look at me with fire in his eyes,” she said, her voice quivering.
He sat back in his chair, defeated. “Will you at least think about it?”
“I cannot see that my feelings will be any different tomorrow or next week or next month.”
He sprang to his feet, to the alarm of the dogs, and paced restlessly back and forth. “Then our only hope is to find Ernest and Frank. We still have time, and there must be a way. I cannot believe they are dead!”
She looked up at him warily, knowing his fidgety moods of old. “Aunt Lucy from Liverpool is trying to contact them. That is where they were last seen, so surely that is the best place to search.”
He spun round, his face alive with enthusiasm. “You are absolutely right! Liverpool! But she is merely asking here and there. We need to broadcast our situation more widely. An advertisement, that is what we must put out. There must be newspapers in Liverpool.”
“When Papa died, Mr Plumphett posted notices in all the newspapers, I believe,” she said.
“Oh, Plumphett! He is such a pompous old fool. I am sure he is a good enough sort of solicitor for common matters, but he drew up this will of your father’s in the first place. I hold him entirely responsible for the extraordinary nature of parts of it.”
“I daresay he only wrote what Papa told him to,” Hope said. “No one could change Papa’s mind when he was set on a certain path.”
Hugo laughed then, and stepped over the dog to take his seat again. “Of course you are right. Perhaps I should talk to Plumphett before I do anything, to understand what was attempted to discover Ernest and Frank. Still, another try at advertising can do no harm.”
“Hope, I should like you to come down to the Dower House with me tomorrow,” her mama said one evening as they drank their tea after dinner. “The refurbishment is almost complete now, so it will be the perfect opportunity for you to choose your bedroom.”
“Must I? The very thought of moving there is so lowering. The weather is so fine, I had hoped to begin my sketch of the northern aspect.”
Hope hated these evenings when the two of them were alone. Often Hugo stayed for a night or two when he was busy on estate business, and then he would play cribbage with her, or sing while she played the pianoforte. Occasionally he read poetry to her, for he had a fine voice for such recitations. But when he was not there, and she and her mother were alone together, Hope had the darkest vision of their lonely future in the Dower House.
Lady Sara set down her cup. “You are very sentimental about this house, Hope. All the drawing of this angle and that is well and good in its own way, and a perfectly acceptable accomplishment for a young lady to pursue, but it does not do to become too attached to any place. Few people are so fortunate as to reside in one house from the cradle to the death bed. October will see us settled in the Dower House, whether you will or no, and it is as well that you become accustomed to the idea.”
“Indeed, I am accustomed, Mama, but I need not like the change. Having lived all my life in the Hall, every room, every chair, every picture has memories for me.”
“They cannot all be good memories, surely? Your father was a harsh and intolerant man, with few redeeming qualities.”
Her mother sighed. “There is little point in pretence. He was an evil man in many ways, and we all suffered at his hands. I was glad when he died, I will not lie about it, and Allamont Hall has few happy memories for me. Perhaps you were luckier, although I cannot say. Your father had the raising of you and your sisters, and I knew little of what went on the nursery. He refused to let me see you, did you know that? Each of you was lifted from my arms when you were but three days old, and taken away from me. I was permitted an hour with you on Sundays, that was all, until you were old enough to eat family dinners with us.” She picked up her cup again. “But this will not do. Your melancholia is afflicting me also, Hope. Ugh, this tea is cold.”
“May I fetch you another cup, Mama?”
“Thank you, Hope. You are a kind girl, even if I deplore your sentimentality.”
“To regret leaving one’s home of many years is surely something more than sentimentality, Mama. I shall not complain when we are in the Dower House, but I cannot but feel the loss keenly.”
“I wonder you do not marry Hugo, then, if you feel so strongly about it,” her mother said.
Hope shuddered. “That would be to give up all possibility of a marriage for love.”
“Sometimes I despair of you, and your sisters were just the same. Love — that is all you young people think about these days. You read too many novels, I think. Love does not answer, Hope. It never has. Such a flimsy, insubstantial emotion, liable to blow away at the first puff of wind. Men are wicked creatures, every one of them, and not worth giving one’s heart to. Take their money and position in society, if you must, but do not look for happiness in marriage.”
Hope was too depressed to answer.
The Dower House was a pretty enough little place, Hope had to concede. Built at the same time as the main house, which it greatly resembled in style, the outer appearance was was reassuringly familiar, even if it felt tiny by comparison. Outside, piles of detritus from the renovations still littered the drive and buried overgrown bushes masquerading as flowerbeds. Inside, the bare wooden floors echoed hollowly in every empty room, and the air smelt overpoweringly of freshly cut wood and distemper.
“This is the dining room,” Lady Sara said. “The ceiling still needs work, but the size is adequate. We shall be able to seat fourteen, or sixteen at a pinch. And this will be the drawing room. The aspect is not what one would wish, but we must make do. And through here is the morning room.”
“It is very dark,” Hope said.
“It is. I fear that massive tree on the lawn will have to go. It must have been pretty enough once, but now it is too monstrous for words. Now, upstairs we have four bedrooms. This one is mine, but you may choose any of the others that you wish. Then the other two will be for a guest and your companion.”
“Companion?” Hope said in a faint voice.
“Of course. You will need a companion for those times when I am away.”
“Might I not stay with one or other of my sisters, or with Cousin Mary?”
“You cannot constantly be packed up and dispatched to this house or that like a piece of luggage! Far better to stay quietly at home. I will advertise for a companion for you, or perhaps I might ask Miss Endercott. She knows everything that goes on in the neighbourhood, and will be sure to know just the person. Such a pity Miss Bellows left. I must say, it was most inconsiderate of her to go off and marry like that. At her age too! What can be more ridiculous than a middle-aged bride?”
“It was an excellent match, Mama, and she could not keep Mr Graham waiting indefinitely, just so that she might chaperon me about when you are not here. But perhaps if you were from home less, or… or if you were to take me with you…”
Her mother turned her gaze full on her daughter, her still-beautiful face alight with merriment. “I do not think that would answer! If you find your situation difficult, Hope, you have brought it upon yourself by refusing some very eligible offers for your hand. Your father gave you an excellent dowry, your accomplishments are adequate, you dance well and you have enough beauty to appear to advantage in company. You would be nothing special in London, but here you may have had your pick of young men any time these last three or four years. Yet here you are, two and twenty and still unwed. If you dislike the prospect of living in the Dower House, then the solution is in your own hands. You may marry tomorrow if you please. I could name half a dozen young men who would be delighted to win you.”
“To win my dowry, you mean,” she said. “That is all that interests them. They court me with glib words and promises, but they care nothing for me.”
Her mother shrugged. “I am tired of this fruitless discussion. You may return to the house while I talk to the builder.”
Hope needed no further prompting. She could barely wait to be outside again, out in the clean air, untainted by paint or plaster or the sound of hammering. As she walked up the drive, she came upon Hugo, supervising one of the gardeners who was pulling weeds out of the gravel. He stood up at once, and, waving the man to continue, fell into step beside her.
“Hope? Are you all right?”
“Could anyone be all right who is expected to leave all this behind?” She waved an arm to encompass the western face of Allamont Hall, mellow in the summer sunshine. “The Dower House is so tiny, Hugo! I shall suffocate there! And Mama is not planning to stay at home any more than she does now, so I must have a companion, she says. A stranger to spend my days with — what could be more dreadful.”
“Well, if you have to spend your life with a stranger, you would do better to marry one, for then you would at least have your own establishment.”
Hope was much struck by this thought. “That is true! A husband, even if one knows him well, is still a stranger in many ways. I recall Connie saying something of the sort — how Lord Carrbridge liked things to be done in a certain way, and she felt quite lost at times, just at first.”
“I daresay Marquesses are trickier to deal with than plain old Misters,” Hugo said. “But I am no stranger — you could marry me and know exactly what you are in for.”
“I am not so sure,” she said seriously. “I know that you enjoy kippers for breakfast, and prefer claret to Madeira, and that you like your dogs and your horse better than most people, but I do not think one can ever know what sort of husband a man will be until it is too late.”
He stopped then, turning towards her, his face eager. “But if one has known him for years and years, has seen him grow from boy to man, and at his worst as well as his best — surely that is enough of a guide? You could say then with a great deal of confidence that this man would be a good husband. You cannot deny it, Hope. You know I would make you a good husband, none better.”
She was taken aback by his intensity, and tried to laugh it off. “Well, you do not beat your dogs, so that is a promising sign that you would not beat me.”
He grabbed her arm, and would have said more, but abruptly he released her and spun away. “Ah, Hope, if you only knew how alike we are! We both despair to leave Allamont Hall. Yet you will not take the obvious step.”
“Do not tease me about it, Hugo. We have time still, and something may yet happen to change our situation.”
They walked on in uncomfortable silence, Hugo with his head lowered. She could not tell whether he was offended, but she had no wish to cause another outburst so she made no attempt to find out.
In the entrance hall, the butler, housekeeper and footman were huddled together, whispering. They sprang apart as Hope and Hugo walked in.
“Miss Allamont! Mr Allamont!” the butler began, then stopped, flustered. In his hands, he held a newspaper.
This was so unlike him that Hope said, “Whatever is wrong, Young?”
“It is the newspaper, Miss. There is a notice…”
He folded the newspaper and placed it on a silver salver, presenting it to Hope with a bow. Hugo snatched it and vanished into the drawing room.
“Really, Hugo!” she cried, following him. Then she saw his face. “What is it? Tell me the worst! Has something terrible occurred?”
“It is the church’s notice about Allamont Hall. There is to be an auction in October, and a viewing day next month. We will have people trampling all over the house, and poking about in the bedrooms, and disrupting the kitchens.”
“Oh no!” She took the newspaper from him, but her tears fell so fast that the words blurred together. “Oh Hugo, what are we to do?”
He wrapped his arms around her and rocked her gently. “If you hate this as much as I do, then marry me, Hope. Marry me and we can put a stop to this once and for all.”
Her head shot up. “Yes!” she said fiercely. “I cannot bear it, so yes, I will marry you, Hugo.”