“Fleur, I cannot thank you enough for staying with Esme whilst Sammy and I go to Hertfordshire. I know my parents would adore to see the children again, but it really is too much of a journey whilst they are still so little.”
“It is my pleasure, Georgina. And anyway, I do so love to help Esme look after little Esme and James. I cannot help thinking it is good practice for when my own time comes,” Fleur said, and her cheeks flushed a little.
“I knew that Philip Marsh was about to propose to you, did I not say it? I do so love to be right, but now more than ever. I cannot tell you how happy I am for you, my dear.” Georgina looked down at the now-closed trunk she was taking to Ashdown Manor.
She began to wonder if she had, perhaps, packed a little too much. After all, it was only to be herself and her darling husband on this particular trip. Furthermore, they were only going to be staying in Hertfordshire for two weeks on this occasion.
“I must admit myself to be particularly glad that you were right on this occasion, cousin.” Fleur could hardly contain her excitement. “Oh, and Jeremy is still teasing me mercilessly. He keeps referring to me as an old married woman already.”
“Well, that is our Jeremy, always looking for amusement,” Georgina said and smiled fondly. “He really is such a fine man, though, is he not?”
“I daresay I have been very fortunate in the brother I have.” Fleur took both of Georgina’s hands in her own. “But listen, you must get on with it. The carriage is all packed, barring your own trunk, and your husband will be waiting.”
“Yes, I suppose I ought to. I shall just go and say goodbye to Esme and the children before I go.”
Georgina’s mother-in-law had made so much progress since her release from the county asylum that she was barely recognizable. She was still pale and fragile, just a little less so; just enough to make her more substantial in the world. And her happiness at regaining her son after more than one and twenty years of separation had been clear on her face for the entire three years since she had come to live at Calder Hall.
When Georgina and Emerson had first left their son and daughter in the care of Esme, they had worried that the responsibility would be a little too much for her. Even with Fleur to assist, assorted maids, and of course, the children’s nurse, Georgina knew that Esme would take the weight of responsibility upon her shoulders alone. But she need not have worried, for it was a responsibility that Esme Montgomery took gladly.
With the carriage fully loaded and their goodbyes finally said, the Duke and Duchess of Calder set off for the long journey to Horley in Hertfordshire. It was a long and yet pleasant journey from Devonshire, and Georgina had to admit that she was far from being a reluctant traveller. She missed her children, of course, but she also relished a little time to spend with her husband and her own dear parents.
When they finally arrived at Ashdown Manor, it was to find Georgina’s mother, Baroness Jeffries, in a complete spin. Every time she prepared for a visit from her daughter and son-in-law, Lady Jeffries was always excruciatingly aware that a Duke was about to visit home.
“Mama, really,” Georgina said when the travellers had been fed and watered, and the party had begun to settle down a little. “You over excite yourself and go to too much trouble. I am still your daughter; I am still me.”
“I know that my dear, but you are married to a Duke.”
“But Mama, it is not as if you do not know Sammy, is it?”
“Oh, I do wish you would not call him Sammy,” her mother said in hushed tones as the pair of them sat alone in the drawing room.
“You need not whisper, Mama; Papa and Sammy are out in the garden. And why on earth do you wish I would not call him Sammy? Surely you do not think I should address my own husband as Your Grace?”
“No, no. But can you not call him Emerson? Surely that is his name in law, Emerson Lockhart?”
“Yes, of course, it is. But Mama, I have always known him as Sammy. You must not forget that he started his life as Samuel White. Whilst the name White was not truly his own, Samuel most certainly was. It is the name that his mother gave him before he was so cruelly ripped from her arms. And that is the name he had throughout our childhood, the only name I shall ever really know him by.”
“My dear, I do not wish to be reminded that the Duke was once a servant in our home. Really, it is most embarrassing. I would hardly know what to say to him about the matter.”
“You need not know what to say to him, Mama, for the subject will never arise. I hardly think that the Duke of Calder is about to reminisce with you about the days when he used to clean out the stables, do you?”
“I do wish you would take it seriously, my dear. I always feel most dreadfully guilty when the two of you come to stay. Surely he must think ill of your father and me for allowing it?” Lady Jeffries was perched on the edge of her seat as if she needed to be ready to rise up and run if the occasion arose.
“But you knew nothing of it, and Sammy is very well aware of that. He knows who was truly responsible for it all, but he is happy in his life now, and he has moved forward. All he ever wanted was to know who he truly was, and now that he knows that, he does not seek revenge. You have seen him; you have been in his company. You know how pleasant he is and how fondly he regards you and Papa.”
“Well, I daresay that much is true.”
“Now, will you relax and let us all have a very pleasant and comfortable fortnight free of unnecessary awkwardness.” Georgina laughed and reached out to lovingly lay a hand on her mother’s cheek.
“I sometimes think that the only time I get you to myself is either in the dead of night or when we are travelling in the carriage,” Emerson Lockhart said and smiled at his wife.
“Sammy, surely you are not tired of our visit already? We have only been here at Ashdown but three days.”
“Of course I am not tired of it. I am just pleased that we are up and breakfasting before the rest of the household. It is nice to sometimes converse just the two of us. No children, no mother, and no parents-in-law. Oh yes, and no cousin Fleur, no cousin Jeremy, and no attorney.”
“Goodness me, you would banish everybody.” Georgina laughed. “Anyway, why is it you want me to yourself?”
“It is nothing specific, simply that I still adore you after all these years.”
“All these years? It has been little more than three, my dear. Has it felt so long?”
“No, I am teasing you,” he said and leaned across to kiss her cheek. “Would you like some bacon whilst I stand?”
“No, thank you. I have eaten quite enough.”
“So, has your mother calmed down a little? Or is she still in anguish because she looks at me and sees her old servant?” Emerson laughed good-humouredly.
“It is not because she looks upon you as a servant, Sammy, but rather remembers that you were and feels ashamed of her part in it.”
“But your mother had no part in it; I have never known a woman worry so much.” He sat down again, quickly setting about his two extra pieces of bacon. “And as far as I can make out, your mother suffered as much at your grandmother’s hands as anybody. Now there was a mother-in-law to shy away from if ever there was one.”
“Yes, my grandmother was extraordinarily hard on my mother, I believe. But she was extraordinarily hard on everybody, surely you must remember that.”
“I know that she despised me.”
“And I am so very sorry about that.”
“Do not be, for I should have been more troubled to be liked by her than to be disliked.”
“That makes a curious sort of sense. I like it.” Georgina reached for the teapot and poured them each another cup.
“I must say, in the day-to-day activity of our lives, I rather forget everything that we went through to find the truth. I even forget that there was a time when I was not Emerson Lockhart. Then I come here to Ashdown Manor, and it is as if I never left. It is as if I am wandering around in the big house instead of loitering by the stables, and I am bound to get caught at any moment and thrown out on my ear.”
“Goodness me, do you really feel that way?” Georgina said and sounded astonished.
“Not in a way that would make me feel awkward or unwelcome, just a little nostalgic, I think.”
“How can you possibly be nostalgic for the days when it was your job to carry all the potato peelings out to the compost?” Georgina said with a mischievous chuckle.
“Because I cannot say that I ever truly minded it. I think the work suited me in a way. I am not saying that I am not pleased with everything I now have, and certainly, the family I have has made my world seem complete. But whenever I am here, I cannot help wondering what drove your grandmother to accede to the wishes of my grandmother. I know that Elizabeth Jeffries was not a pleasant woman, but I am certain that Beatrice Ellington was very much worse. How do people like that find one another? And how does one convince the other into such cruelty?”
“I suppose we will never know the answer to that, although I must admit now that you mention it, it is all rather intriguing.”
“I mean, I know I never met my grandmother, but I felt as if I had come to know something of her personality. Not only through what you told me of your meetings with her, but reading those letters. I know there are only three of them, but I thought they were quite a startling revelation; a true picture of the woman she had once been.”
“Yes, I suppose a person reveals a lot in a letter, especially one that is written to a friend or somebody that they are close to,” Georgina said and became suddenly a little vague. “Yes, that makes an awful lot of sense.”
“You are staring at the teapot, Georgie,” Emerson said and laughed.
“Forgive me, I lost myself for a moment in a world of my own. I think that has given me a little idea.”
“What little idea? An idea for what?”
“An idea for finding out a little more about my grandmother,” Georgina said and felt a little frisson of excitement that she had not experienced for a while. It was the idea of performing a few inquiries, carrying out her own little investigation once again. “Everything in my grandmother’s world must still be in this house. I propose we search the attics and go through her things.”
“What, all of them?” Emerson said and suddenly wore the expression of a man who wished he had never begun the conversation in the first place.
“No, but let us find her letters, anything at all that was considered a keepsake to her. There might have been more people in her acquaintance than just Beatrice. Perhaps she even kept a diary. Think how much we learned about my grandmother from nothing more than three letters from Beatrice and then imagine what we might discover about Elizabeth Jeffries, the woman, in an attic full of things.”
“Well, if that is what you really want to do,” Emerson said and looked comically downtrodden.
“I really cannot understand why you are so interested, Georgina. You were never particularly close to your grandmother,” Lady Jeffries complained as she stood in the attic of Ashdown Manor with her hands firmly on her hips. “And it really is terribly dusty up here. Goodness me, look at your gown.”
“Mama, I was not at all close to her, but that does not stop me being interested.” Georgina wished her mother would just leave her to it if she were going to complain throughout. “And it is important to Sammy.”
“Well, he did not say so exactly, but he did say that he wonders what made Grandmama go along with things. With Beatrice placing him here and what have you.”
“So, he does not mind all of this?” Lady Jeffries swept her arm in a wide arc to indicate the strewn hat boxes, shoe boxes, and assorted walking canes which once belonged to Elizabeth.
“No, not at all. He would just prefer to hear the result rather than do the digging, as it were.”
“A real husband then?” Her mother smiled, and Georgina laughed; her mother was rarely humorous, so it was all the more amusing to Georgina when she was.
“Ah, this shoe box is full of letters,” Georgina said as she pulled off the dust-covered lid and peered inside. “I was hoping for old diaries.”
“I do not recall your grandmother keeping one.”
“Goodness me, most of these are from Beatrice. Really, did she know nobody else?” Georgina sighed. “Oh wait, this one is from Great Aunt Belle.”
“I thought they did not get along.”
“Yes, so did I,” Georgina spoke distractedly as she hurriedly read through it. “No, they did not get on.” She laughed, remembering Mirabelle Allencourt fondly. The lovable if formidable old lady had passed away the year before and Georgina missed her greatly. “Goodness, look at the date!” she went on and turned the letter so that her mother might see it. “So many years ago. Surely just after Grandmama had married.”
“Yes, she would have only been married a few weeks, I think. Well, read it.” Lady Jeffries, all thoughts of dust forgotten, settled down on an old wooden trunk.
I know it is expected for one sister to wish another felicitation on the occasion of her marriage, but I cannot. I know you will have realized my reasons for not attending your wedding, and I daresay it does not trouble you greatly. But I am bound to say it troubles me, so I will lay out my feelings for you this one last time and then do my best to forget you.
You and I have never been the greatest of friends, but I always loved you. However, I must tell you that such finer feelings are waning, and I doubt they will persist in the future. How you have changed, and not for the better.
I truly thought you loved poor David Ellington. Goodness knows all of Devonshire expected the two of you to marry one day soon, so please do not suggest that you were never rightly courting.
How you can turn your back so casually when the two of you had been childhood sweethearts is something I cannot fathom. When a love declared so young persists into adulthood, it is a thing of beauty, something that cannot be so easily swept aside.
That you never truly told him face to face was an act of the most appalling cowardice. You owed him that much at least. Instead, you gaily accepted invitations from a man and a family you barely knew in a county so far away, never once being honest with David in all that time.
You did not see him when news of your imminent wedding reached his ears, but I did. He will not tell you this, but I shall. You broke his spirit that day, as well as his heart. I have never seen anything so devastating in all my life.
With you never bothering to return, and Beatrice feathering her own nest down in Cornwall, I was the only person left for David to turn to. To see such a fine figure of a man reduced to tears is a sight I never wish to see again, and a memory I shall never forgive you for.
I wish you had never met Beatrice Ellington, for she has made you a person I no longer recognize. Well, as the saying goes, you have made your bed, and now you must lay in it. I know you do not love your new husband, for I realize now that you do not have the capacity for such things.
Perhaps it will haunt you one day, and perhaps you will find a loveless marriage is not made right by titles and money. I suspect you may eventually come to that on your own, and it will be a hard day for you when you do.
A well-deserved reckoning.
I have said my piece, and you need not worry that I shall ever contact you again. May life bring you everything that is truly yours.
When Georgina looked up, it was to see her mother’s mouth agape.
“Mirabelle really was very forthright,” Georgina said with a warm smile. “I wish you had had the chance to get to know her better.”
“I wish I could have too. And I wish I had had the courage to put Elizabeth Jeffries in her place as her sister had. Goodness me!” She looked awestruck. “I wonder if the sisters ever spoke again.”
“Aunt Belle was a woman of her word. I would wager there is not another piece of correspondence from her in this box at all.”
“Well, keep going.” Lady Jeffries had settled in for the afternoon. “What else is in there?”
“You look exhausted, my love.” Emerson laid his hands on Georgina’s shoulders as she sat at the dressing table in her nightgown. “Stop brushing that beautiful hair and get into bed.”
“Thank you,” she said and hurriedly set her golden hair in a thick braid. “I must admit I am a little tired.”
“All that rummaging and poking around, I daresay.” He laughed.
“It was quite emotional really,” she said with a touch of melancholy.
“There were an awful lot of letters from Beatrice. All as artful as before with her self-serving plans.”
“About me?” Emerson looked suddenly keen and apprehensive all at once.
“Given that their scheme to hide you was probably their most involved, there was very little. Obviously, the letters are one-sided, from Beatrice to Elizabeth, but I have formed the opinion that the finer details of the plan were my grandmother’s idea. Beatrice thanks her for being so clever and coming up with something that she had not been able to come up with herself.” Georgina sighed and then rose to her feet before sliding her arms around Emerson’s neck. “I am so very sorry.”
“Well, you have nothing to be sorry for.” He laughed gently and planted a kiss somewhere in her thick golden hair. “And I think it is fair to say that my grandmother was the one who changed your grandmother for the worse.”
“I do not think there was much to choose between them. Except, perhaps, remorse.”
“From your grandmother? About me?”
“I think perhaps remorse for the way she had lived her life. There was a letter from my grandmother to David Ellington.”
“She did not send it?”
“No, but it was dated. She wrote it a few months before she passed away. I suppose she thought it was too late for apologies and chose not to send it after all.”
“What did it say?”
“I have it here. Shall I read it to you?” She released herself from his embrace and took the letter from her nightstand before sitting down on the side of the bed.
“Please do,” he said and sat down beside her.
“My Dear David,
It has been more than five and thirty years since I last laid eyes on you. For some people, a lifetime. But over those years, I have more than once picked up my pen to write to you. Somehow, I could never find the courage, although I daresay that you will have always known that.
My sister, in the last letter I ever received from her, told me that my treatment of you all those years ago lacked courage. You knew me well enough to imagine how I reacted to such an accusation; with anger and furious denials. And yet, I never tore her letter to shreds. I kept it and have looked at it more than once over the years. The reason being, of course, that I always knew there was truth to it, however much I made little denials to myself.
Not long after Mirabelle wrote to me for the last time, I received your last letter. I can hardly express all these years later how much it meant to me; how much it still means to me. I have read it so many times that the paper is as soft as silk and the ink barely legible to my ageing eyes.
It might surprise you to hear after more than three decades that I felt homesick and lonely for the very first time after reading it.
Your grace and kindness humbled me and reminded me of the great friendship I had lost. I was instantly transported back to a time when we two walked the barley fields, too young to need chaperones, but old enough to begin to fall in love.
Yes, fall in love. Perhaps after all that I did you would be easily forgiven for thinking that I had never loved you. After all, I turned my back and walked away without proper explanation, leaving it to Beatrice and Mirabelle to fill in the gaps.
I shall not lie and say that I ever had a notion that your sister would have spared your feelings in the telling of it, for I knew her too well for that. A brother and sister really could not be more different, could they?
I could have spared you that much at least, but I did not. I could have told you myself that I planned to marry Baron Jeffries; I ought to have found the courage from somewhere. But I knew that you would easily discern that I had no love in my heart for the Baron. Of all people, you would have seen it; felt it. And worse, you would have known that it was still you I loved so greatly.
I will not make Beatrice my excuse, for I was the weak one. I allowed myself to be impressed by her harsh ways and determination that she would turn life to suit her and be no slave to the state we females often find ourselves in.
I wanted her certainty and what I saw as her courage. But it was not long before I realized that I had been a fool to be so bewitched.
Your letter and the beautiful brooch you sent me as a reminder of our old love showed me clearly that my love for you had never died, it had only been shrouded by my own pride, vanity, and greed.
I was so newly married, and I knew that day, as I read your letter and the tears flowed, exactly what I had lost and that I had a long, lonely life stretching out ahead of me in which to grieve.
As time ground on so slowly, I became a most bitter woman. I felt sorry for myself, although I know I had no right to. I missed you and Devonshire, and even Mirabelle. I had lost everything, and all because I allowed myself to lose it. I had given it all away.
My husband, who was no more to blame than you were, was so often the victim of my bitterness and sharp ways that when his final illness came, he simply gave into it. He put up no fight at all, and I knew it was because he could no more bear the life I had forced us into than I could.
My only son suffered, as did my granddaughter because bitterness and self-pity flourish if one allows them to, just as I did.
But it was all too late to change anything; I could not go back, however much I wished it. And so, I quietly turned my anger and bitterness towards a new target, and that target was Beatrice. Even now, I doubt she would have realized it.
A few years ago, she came to me with a problem, and I offered her a solution. Lacking in ordinary human feeling as she has always done, your sister seized my solution with both hands. I had thought to punish her in my own little way by coming up with a plot so vile she would one day crumble with the guilt of it all, just as I have done. But she did not.
Yet again, I should have known better. Instead of hurting her, I have once again hurt those around her. Innocent victims about whom Beatrice will never truly care. And now, after all of it, I am the one who has come to feel the guilt I meant for her. Again, I have come to feel it too late to change it. I can only hope that God will forgive me for all the pain I have caused others throughout my life.
I daresay I shall soon find out one way or the other, for I know that I am not long for this world. I have hidden it from my family, for I am still the same coward, one who does not want to face the reality that those nearest to me shall be little affected by my passing. In the end, it is no more than I deserve.
I shall end now by simply saying that I have never stopped loving you and that, in the end, was the most just punishment for one such as I am.
I wore the beautiful brooch every day as a reminder of my old love and everything I had cast aside so foolishly. I hope there is some little comfort in that for you, even after all these years.
David, I truly am sorry for the way I treated you, and even sorrier that I deprived myself of the greatest gift this life has to offer; love.
I love you and I always shall,
By the time Georgina had finished reading, tears coursed down her cheeks. Emerson took the letter from her and folded it neatly before taking her into his arms.
“I remember that brooch,” he said simply. “She really did wear it every day.”
“Yes, although I never realized it was from David Ellington.”
“Perhaps we should search the attic for it.”
“So that we can return it to David Ellington when we deliver Elizabeth’s letter to him.”
“Oh, Sammy, do you think we should?”
“Elizabeth wrote it for him, and it was likely the most honest communication of her life. He deserves to see it. He deserves to know the truth of how she really felt after all these years.”
“You really are the most wonderful husband. The most wonderful man,” she said and sniffed. “I do love you so very much.”
“And I love you, Georgie. I will always love you, to the end of my days and beyond.”
David Ellington, as straight-backed as ever despite his age, was so grateful to finally receive Elizabeth’s letter that Georgina was reduced to tears.
“You truly are a sensitive lady, especially when compared to your grandmother,” he said in an attempt at a little humour to hide his own deep emotion. “But I always knew that she was not as hard-hearted as she had set her mind to being. She was no match for Beatrice, not really.”
“I had wondered if we really ought to give you the letter now. After so many years, I thought it might be better to let things rest.” Georgina gratefully accepted the handkerchief from David, knowing that his small act of caring for her was diverting him from his own emotions for a while.
“You did the right thing, my dear. I shall always be grateful to you for this.” He paused when his voice broke a little and cleared his throat before resuming, “I always wondered if Lizzie still had any love for me, and now I know. It is sad that she lived the life she did, for she ended up a victim of my sister just as I was. Beatrice simply did not understand love. She had never felt it in her life, I am sure. That was why she tried to crush it in others.”
“If only my grandmother had been strong enough to resist her; brave enough to follow her own heart instead of making her life so bitter.”
“We cannot change what has passed, but we can always be grateful for the truth. I have the truth here now in this letter, and I shall treasure it for whatever time I have left.”
“David,” Georgina protested as her tears began again.
“Now then, we all have our time on this earth, and we all have to give that up in the end. I am the only one left who remembers now. Lizzie is gone, Mirabelle is gone, and Beatrice is gone. Perhaps we shall have our opportunity in the great beyond to make and accept our apologies and acknowledge all that passed between us here.”
“I am sure of it.” Georgina smiled weakly.
“Just you promise me that you will be grateful every day for the love you have. Never grow tired of saying it out loud, and never grow tired of hearing how you are loved. Hold it dear, Georgina. Learn from our mistakes.”
“I promise, David, truly I do,” she said and embraced the old man tightly, glad that the search for answers had truly come to an end for all of them.