‘To Mrs Price, Miss Winterton, Miss Margaret Winterton, Miss Frances Winterton. My greetings to you, and sincere condolences on the sad demise of your esteemed father. If convenient to you, I shall do myself the honour of waiting upon you at noon tomorrow for the purpose of conveying to you the material contents of the last will and testament of your late lamented parent. Yours in deepest sorrow, Horatio Plumphett of Plumphett, Plumphett, Witherspoon and Plumphett, Brinchester, Brinshire.’
Annabelle huddled in her favourite chair in the morning room, too numb even to cry. In the matching chair on the opposite side of the fireplace, Lucy sobbed noisily. Margaret had taken her usual place at the worktable, but for once her hands were still. She stared into space, white-faced and wide-eyed with shock. Beside her, tears poured silently down Fanny’s face.
Annabelle could hardly take it in. Whatever was to become of them? Their ignominy could not long be concealed from the world. ‘Have you heard about the Winterton sisters of Woodside?’ their acquaintance would say. ‘Dreadful, quite dreadful.’ And indeed it was dreadful. She had no idea what they were to do.
Out in the hall, a murmur of voices as the solicitor was shown out. Poor Mr Plumphett! The reading of a will was always a doleful business, but he must seldom have had such bad news to impart. His usual urbane voice was high with distress. “I am so sorry, so very sorry,” he had said, over and over. Perhaps he was still saying it, even as he was ushered out of the house and into his gig.
Doors opened and closed, the gig rattled away down the drive and in the hall, more murmured voices. Then Rosamund and Robin came into the room, their faces grave. At least Rosamund was safe, and that was a mercy. She had been wife these five years to Mr Robin Dalton, heir to Lord Westerlea of Westerlea Park, and could not be harmed by the scandal. One sister, at least, uninjured by the catastrophe.
But four sisters remained at Woodside, with no brother or husband to shelter them from the disaster.
“Lucy, do stop weeping,” Rosamund said. “Tears never helped anything.”
“But we are destitute!” Lucy cried. “Whatever are we to do! Thrown out of our own home! It is unbearable, and I will not go to the workhouse, I will not!”
“It will never come to that,” Robin Dalton said firmly. “No one is throwing you out of Woodside. It is yours, after all, left to you all equally by your father, so you may stay here as long as you wish, until you have decided how to proceed.”
“What option do we have?” Annabelle said. “The house must be sold to pay the debts Papa left. Then we shall be homeless and penniless.”
“You will have a home with us for as long as you want,” Robin said. “Penniless does not mean friendless.”
Annabelle softened at once. She had not much liked Robin when Rosamund had first married him. He was something of a dandy, who spent more time before his pier glass than was proper for a man, and far too grand for country girl Rosamund. But Annabelle had warmed to him when she had seen how happy he made his wife, and how solicitous of her comfort. And now he would willingly take her sisters under his wing, too.
“You are all goodness, Robin,” Annabelle said, “but we cannot possibly impose on you. You could not squeeze us into Holly Lodge, and we cannot inflict ourselves on Lord Westerlea. Nor would your mama want us in London.”
“Then a small cottage in the village,” he said. “With a couple of servants and your own good sense, you might live comfortably enough at very little expense.”
“You have your own family to think of,” Annabelle said.
“My wife’s sisters are my family, too,” he said mildly. “Besides, it is Rosamund’s dowry which contributed to your father’s ruinous financial state. We wondered greatly at the time where he had contrived to find twenty thousand pounds, but if I had known he had been obliged to mortgage the house to pay such a sum, I should never have agreed to it. Just because Mr Winterton promised it years ago, when he was better off, does not mean he was obliged to pay it when his circumstances had changed.”
“And why did they change?” Lucy cried. “We were once very well off, and Papa bought Mama expensive jewellery every year for her birthday. Oh… is that ours, or part of the estate? Perhaps we will have something to live on after all.”
She brightened visibly at the thought.
“No, all the good pieces have gone,” Annabelle said. “Sold off or gambled away, who knows?”
“Not gambled away,” Rosamund said thoughtfully. “Papa searched for them before I married Robin, and was very upset that they were missing, so it was not his doing.”
“Perhaps Mama sold them to keep us afloat,” Annabelle said. “Well, whatever happened to them, they are definitely gone, and there are only a few trinkets left. Would those be ours, Robin?”
“Mr Plumphett will need to advise on that point,” Robin said. “He is also to let us have a full reckoning of all your father’s assets and debts. His gaming debts were considerable, from what I have heard. I do not think we need to look further for an explanation of how the estate came to be so encumbered.”
“If Jeremy had lived—” Annabelle began tentatively.
“It would have made no difference,” Robin said quietly. “Your father’s affair with the dice began many years ago, long before your poor brother lost his life.”
“But what are we to do?” Fanny cried, with a sob.
“Nothing at all, yet,” Robin said crisply, “except to dry your tears, Fanny, and Lucy, too, and wait for Mr Plumphett to report his findings to us. Then we may begin to consider how to move forward. And you must come for dinner again today.”
“Yes, of course,” Rosamund said.
“You have been so kind to us, sister, brother,” Annabelle said. “However, I believe it would be best for us to return to our usual routine, at least for as long as we can. Who knows what the future may bring? So let us enjoy Woodside while we can.”
Rosamund hugged each of her sisters in turn, and then she and Robin departed for the short walk to Holly Lodge.
“Well, if we are to dine here, I had better go and speak to Mrs Thompson,” Annabelle said.
She found Havelock, the housekeeper, loitering in the passageway outside the kitchen.
“There now, Miss Annabelle, that’s the worst over,” she said.
If only that were true! Annabelle looked about her with new eyes, seeing, as if for the first time, the worn carpet, the faded paintwork, the chip taken out of the wooden panelling when the footman had dropped a whole tray of glasses. A footman… how many years was it since they had had a footman? Ten at least. The signs of increasing poverty had been clear for a long time, for those with eyes to see. But Annabelle had been beguiled by the comforting familiarity of her home. She loved its mellow stone, its odd wings of different ages and styles, its dusty, seldom-used corners and the passageways and stairs so well-known that she could find her way about blindfold. Her home.
She had been born at Woodside, they all had. Rosamund first, then Andrew who had died in infancy, then Annabelle, Lucy, Margaret and Fanny. Then poor Jeremy, sent away to sea at the age of twelve, to be made into a man worthy to inherit Woodside. But the sea had taken him from them on his first voyage, and there had been no more children after him, none that survived. Jeremy… the boy with the laughing eyes and the hair that always flopped across his forehead, no matter what he did to it. He would have been seventeen now, if he had lived. Almost a man. This mess would have been his responsibility, if he had lived.
This would never do! She must not get maudlin. What had happened had happened, and they must make the best of it.
“We shall be dining here today, Havelock,” Annabelle said.
“Very good, Miss. Shall I give the orders to Mrs Thompson? You will not wish to be bothered with domestic matters today.”
“Thank you, Havelock. She will know what to prepare. I cannot… cannot think about food at the moment.”
“That’s very natural, Miss, with the master only just buried and hearing the will, and all. But forgive me if I’m speaking out of turn, Miss, but… you look… I mean to say, it wasn’t bad news, was it? The master didn’t leave Woodside away from his own daughters?”
Annabelle gave a wry laugh. “Oh no, he did not do that. He left Woodside to us, equally, and he very generously left us all his debts, too. Tell me Havelock, have the servants been paid this quarter?”
The housekeeper shifted uncomfortably. “Well… no, Miss, not for a couple of years now, but it don’t matter. Most of us have a bit put by, and we had a roof over our heads, and food on the table. We understood how it was.”
Which was more than Annabelle had. No, that was not true. She had known perfectly well that there was less money than there had been, but she had assumed that Papa’s income was being diverted to the gaming tables, leaving little for candles and coal. She had not suspected that the house was mortgaged. Rosamund had helped Papa with his accounts at one time, but whenever Annabelle had offered to do the same, he had bitten her head off, so she had never suspected the true state of affairs. They must have been living beyond their means for years.
She went back into the morning room. Lucy was alone there, still curled up in a miserable ball in the same chair. Annabelle took her usual seat on the other side of the fireplace.
“Where are Margaret and Fanny?”
“Probably in the attic, rearranging the furniture in the baby house.”
Annabelle wished she had a comfort of that sort to turn to. Her books were her usual refuge, but today even that enticement held no charm for her.
“Fanny, at least, will be safe from poverty,” Lucy said. “Mr Hawes will offer for her at last, and will whisk her away to Kellingborough. But as for the rest of us… you still pine for your lost love, I am a widow at two and twenty, and Margaret is too shy even to look at a man. I do not know what is to become of us,” she ended tearfully.
“Now, do not start crying again, dearest,” Annabelle said. “Rosamund is a little… sharp, sometimes, but she is quite right — crying never made anything better. As to what is to become of us, we have only three choices… to find a husband, to live on the charity of our relations or to find employment. The first two do not appeal to me, so I shall find myself a post as a governess.”
Lucy swung round to plant her feet squarely on the floor. “No!” she cried, leaning forward in her anxiety. “You must not, Belle, truly you must not! The role of a governess is of all things the most disagreeable, neither family nor servant. I do not remember ours, but I know that the Claremonts’ Miss Lackey ate all her meals in her room, like a leper. Most disagreeable.”
Annabelle laughed. “That was because she was young and pretty and made sheep’s eyes at John and Rupert… and at Mr Claremont, and so Mrs Claremont banished her, and she was too proud to eat with the servants. I should not be so proud, I assure you. No, it will suit me very well to be a governess, Lucy, so do not repine upon it.”
For a fortnight, they continued almost as if nothing had happened. Callers came to offer their condolences, letter after letter arrived expressing sorrow to varying degrees, and the sisters sat in their morning room each day sewing handkerchiefs and trimming bonnets almost as if their lives had not come unceremoniously to an end. Only the quantity of black crepe reminded them. But several times Mr Plumphett’s gig creaked up the drive, and once the handsome tilbury of Mr Martin from Martin’s Bank in Brinchester, and each visit reduced Annabelle’s spirits a little more. There was no money in the bank, no investments secure in the three percents, there were debts everywhere, some astoundingly large, and half the tenant farms had already been sold off. The remaining holdings were worth no more than two or three hundred pounds a year.
Something needed to be done. The sisters met in their father’s book room, together with Robin and Rosamund, to discuss their plight.
“We cannot survive on so little money,” Annabelle said, looking at the reckoning Robin had made of their financial situation. “It would be a reasonable income if we had no other obligations, but these debts… Do they all need to be paid?”
“Unfortunately, I fear so,” Robin said. “If you were to sell the house and remaining estate holdings, you might just clear all obligations of that nature. It would only be possible to stay on here on such a low income if one of you were to marry a man of substance.”
Annabelle tried not to look at Fanny, but she herself spoke up. “I do not have any expectations from Mr Hawes, if that is what you were thinking,” she said, her chin rising defiantly. “He has not come near me since Papa died, and I must presume that any… any regard he might once have felt towards me has been extinguished.” Tears sparkled on her lashes, but she held her head high.
“You are very brave, dearest,” Annabelle said, and Margaret hugged her sister fiercely.
“I fear you may be correct,” Rosamund said gently. “Lord Westerlea met Mr Hawes a few days ago at a card party. He felt Mr Hawes was avoiding him, rather, but when he approached him directly, Mr Hawes asked very politely after Robin and Aunt Mary, but made no mention at all of you.”
“Which gives me a very poor opinion of him,” Robin said sharply. “That is not the behaviour of a gentleman.”
“Oh, but I cannot blame him for withdrawing,” Fanny said, two spots of colour in her cheeks. “I daresay he cannot afford to marry without a dowry, and after all, there was no engagement between us. He had never spoken. I do not blame him in the least.”
“So, your hero is proved to be no more than a mortal man, swayed by money like every other,” Rosamund said impatiently. “Annabelle, Lucy, do you have any rich, lovelorn swains hidden away?”
Annabelle smiled, but shook her head.
“If I had ever been the type to attract rich, lovelorn swains,” Lucy said, “I should never have taken poor Walter. Who marries a man of almost four score years except in desperation?” But she smiled as she spoke. “Dear Walter! Such a sweet man. I shall never find another like him.”
“Then it seems that Woodside must be sold,” Robin said sadly. “If you will give me the authority, I will engage to find an agent to manage the sale, and will myself undertake to settle with the tradesmen and pay the servants here.”
“You are too good, Robin,” Lucy said. “I do not know what we should have done without you.” The others murmured their agreement.
“It is unfortunate that I do not have access to the income that will be mine one day,” he said. “I could then have—”
Annabelle reached across to squeeze his arm. “Even if you had, it would not be prudent. The income to support us in such a house is gone. It must be sold and that is an end to it. So we must look to what we shall do next. We are agreed that we cannot impose ourselves on Robin and Rosamund. One sister might have been useful to them, but four is too great a burden. Elsewhere, we have few relatives close enough for us to apply for aid, and none at all on Papa’s side, but Mama’s family has been helpful. Aunt Letty and Aunt Pru can offer a home to one of us. Aunt Letty has recently suffered some ill-health and is almost bed-bound, and Aunt Pru writes that they would welcome a companion who could provide some company so that Aunt Pru is not tied to the sick room. They live very secluded, so perhaps that would suit Margaret. Do you think you could manage that, dear?”
Margaret nodded, but her face was pale.
“Mama’s only brother, Uncle Arthur, writes that he has twelve children now, poor man, so his house is quite full up. However, his sister-in-law is unwell and in need of someone to chaperon her two step-daughters about. He suggests that Lucy might be acceptable — a respectable young widow and so forth.”
“Oh, yes!” Lucy said. “I should love to, although… I am in mourning. Would it be quite seemly? To attend balls?”
“Your mourning period for your husband has passed,” Rosamund said. “For Papa, there is no reason not to go about after the first month or so. You will not dance, of course, but you may certainly act as chaperon. Do you not agree, Robin? I have seen widows even in deep mourning at entertainments in London, although nothing of a frivolous nature.”
“Oh, certainly,” Robin said. “For a husband, it could not be thought of, but for your father it is not necessary to keep secluded.”
Lucy smiled happily. “Then I should be very glad to do it.”
“Excellent,” Annabelle. “So that leaves Fanny and me.”
“As it happens, I might have some possibilities for you,” Robin said, with just a hint of smugness. “Aunt Mary wrote to her friend Lady Harriet Hay, do you remember her? Lord Carrbridge’s sister. Lady Harriet supports a charitable endeavour for women with no family to support them. They make fashionable gowns for ladies of lesser means, those not handy enough with a needle to make their own. She employs a number of women as seamstresses, and would like someone of a more elevated background to talk to the customers.”
“It sounds charming,” Rosamund added. “The mamas bring their daughters to buy something special for an important ball, or to be married in.”
“Oh, how romantic!” Fanny breathed.
“And you are so nimble with a needle, too,” Rosamund said. “It would suit you admirably.”
“Well, then,” Annabelle said, with a sudden tremor. “It remains only for me to seek a post as a governess.” After all the discussion and wondering and hoping and fearing, finally her family would be split asunder.
“Are you quite determined on such a course, sister?” Rosamund said. “I cannot bear to think of you in such a position. Governesses are hated by everyone — their employers, their charges, the servants. It will be miserable for you.”
Annabelle was so tempted to answer with the stark truth. I am miserable everywhere, so it hardly matters. Instead, she said firmly, “My mind is made up, and I am well suited for the role, you must admit.”
“Indeed, but… Well, no matter,” Robin said. “If it does not work out, you may return to us and we will find room for you. For any of you, if you find your posts uncongenial. But if you are set on this, Annabelle, then there is a possibility. I asked Lady Carrbridge if she could help. Do you remember her? You will have met her in town.”
“I remember her,” Annabelle said. “I doubt she remembers me.”
“Well, she meets a great many people, it is true. Here, read her letter.”
She passed across a sheet of paper covered in neat script. After the usual salutations, Annabelle read, ‘There is an old friend of Lord Carrbridge’s who might be in need of a governess. His wife died last year, leaving him with three young daughters to raise. The poor man is distraught and hardly knows what he is about, so he has not yet thought what he should do for them. Lord C has written to enquire of him if he would like a recommendation for a governess, but we have not yet heard from him. I will let you know if we hear word from him. In the meantime, do tell me a little more about your sister, so that I may know how best to describe her accomplishments. Constance Carrbridge.’
“This came just today,” Robin said, holding out another sheet.
‘So happy to tell you that Allan would be delighted to offer Miss W a post as governess. It had been on his mind that he should do something about the matter, but had not the least idea how to go about it. If she is all that you say, I am sure she will do very well there. His mother is in residence, so there will be not the least impropriety. He lives at Charslby, near Kenford in Cheshire, and is a very pleasant, amiable man. All the Skeltons are charming. I know his sisters quite well, and they are delightful. I am sure Miss W will be very happy there. Constance Carrbridge.’
Happy. Annabelle could not imagine being happy ever again, but she was content to be unhappy at Charlsby. Robin wrote to accept Mr Skelton’s offer, and to Charlsby she was to go to begin her life as a governess.