Saturday, 1 February 2020

Free Chapter Read - The Waterloo Legacy

The Waterloo Legacy
Chapter 1
Pennard Hall, Somerset 1815: 24th June
Having escaped to the garden, sitting alone and utterly devoid of distractions, it was so very difficult to brush aside the image of light blue eyes turning smoky grey in sunlight, and of manly lips curving to a quirky smile. Would that she could erase that special memory of her heart’s desire and the relaxed manner of his basking in the afterglow of mutual bliss. But it was all too vivid: even the remembered sweet scent of flattened meadow grasses, where they had lain surrounded by moon daisies swaying gently on a balmy summer breeze.
   Both had known the love expressed between them was oh so wrong, but heady euphoria had taken hold in the madness of the moment. Although it was true love back then, illicit love, he still expressed undying love within his letters: letters she kept hidden.
   Oh how oft she had pondered over portraits hanging in the upper gallery, and studied the likeness between her son and that of Earls’ of Weston down the centuries. Mathew’s appearance bespoke untainted bloodlines, as did that of the present earl’s younger brother, whilst her husband, the earl, resembled none of the former.
   It was quite bizarre, for Michael Melrose, Earl of Weston, was fair, with light brown eyes, and florid features. Albeit of good height, he was so unlike the taller, dark-haired, blue-eyed Melrose trait, it was little wonder there were those within society who had looked upon Michael with a curious eye. Similarities to his mother, the dowager countess, had always excused his appearance. But his sister, May, had let slip observations from time to time of a curious bent in relation to her brother’s likeness to that of an unrelated family; and the very fact the family were not of Isobel’s acquaintance, she had no means to verify May’s comments.
   Thus daydreaming, and duly caught unawares, a sudden flash of pink in her peripheral vision drew her attention, and her heart sank. Oh lordy. So often, when she slipped away to write in her journal, someone would come looking for her.
   “Izzie . . . Izzie . . .” came a plaintive plea from her sister-in-law. “Where are you?”
   Holding her breath whilst tempted to take flight, instead she remained seated behind the trunk of a favoured walnut tree, half hoping the lovely May would pass her by unnoticed.
   “Izzie. . . Izzie, I know you are out here, somewhere,” yelled May, quite unladylike in manner, followed by a sharp: “Isobelanswer me.”
   If May was resorting to Isobel then something was amiss, and she called out in response: “I’m here, by the walnut tree.”
   May flew to her side, cheeks flushed almost as pink as her muslin day gown, her bright blue Melrose eyes alight with excitement. “It’s over. Can you believe it? Oh how glorious it must have been for Michael, for Luke, and your brother?”
   Isobel’s heart somersaulted; part joy, part apprehension. “Over . . . you mean . . .”
   “Yes . . . Yes . . . They’ve done for Boney, all over again, despite rumours of a humiliating retreat and desertion of Brussels.”
   “May, excitement is all very well,” said Isobel, snatching up her journal before getting to her feet, “but remember you are a lady, not a soldier given to barrack room slang.”
   “Oh piffle and stuff-shirt,” declared May, a hand thrust to her hip in recalcitrant stance. “I’m quoting Luke’s very words, and might I remind you, I am more than of age. Besides, it’s officially declared Wellington was victorious at Waterloo. It’s all clearly written within the London Gazette, and dated twenty-second of June.”
   Isobel laughed whilst smoothing out creases from her skirts. “Have we letters, then?”
   “From Luke,” replied May, leaning forward to scoop a soft weave carriage wrap from the seat, which circled the tree.
   “Oh, then no news from Michael?”
   “Not as yet, and Luke had so little to say, hence mother is beside herself with worry.”
   “For what reason, when we are blessed with the end of war?”
   “You know mother and her intuition,” said May, as they began strolling from the lower lawn to the upper paved terrace.
   “Well yes, I do, but on such a joyous occasion as this, we should be of mind in how best to celebrate the homecoming of our heroes.”
   “My thoughts exactly, though I wager mother will never sanction preparations for a grand affair for their homecoming, which could be weeks, perhaps months hence.”
   “Why ever not, pray?”
   “My intuition tells me mother has a suspicion Luke might have been holding something back. His missive was very short, of which he dispatched post-haste on the nineteenth,” declared May, whilst trailing her fingers over a marble statuette of a shepherdess with a lamb tucked under arm. “Mother will in no way condone any celebration of Wellington’s victory, until both her sons are standing before her.”
   “But that is nonsense, for it is I who shall organise a celebratory ball for their homecoming.”
   May let slip a sigh of delight in one breath; and in the next breath, as they hurriedly ascended steps to the upper terrace, sense of unease spilled forth. “I wish you and mother liked one another better.”
   Linking her arm in May’s, she chuckled. “Your mother and I like one another well enough.”
   “Piffle. Only in respectful manner, as you do with each other’s acquaintances and friends.”
   “Is that not better than mere tolerance of each other?”
   May sniffed; pointed in extreme. “I try my very best to bridge the divide between the pair of you, and I fail miserably so. And yet, both of you are as one when it comes to Mathew.”
   “Oh May . . . he’s but a child.”
   “I know, and believe me when I say: I am not in the least bit jealous of your son.”
   “Nor should you be, for your mother dotes on you.”
   “I think not, for it is Michael she dotes on. After all, don’t all mothers dote on their first born?”
   “As Mathew is my first and only child I cannot in all honesty answer that question,” nor dared she reveal the truth, for Mathew was special, very special to her. “I hope, if ever I am blessed with more children, I shall love them all with equal measure.”
   “So shall I, if ever I should find a man who will wed a girl of height matching that of a young buck. Oh, harebells, Izzie. I am all but an old maid.”
   Aware of movement within the drawing room, the garden doors before them, Isobel lowered her voice. “I would give anything to have your height and graceful countenance. Besides, you are but twenty and three years, and you have admirers at present, and soon shall have a veritable array of young titled officers returned from war and seeking a wife.”
   May paused in step and laughed: mocking in tone and mocking self. “I’m about as graceful as a goose, and although Luke is by far, a head taller than Michael, I can stay abreast of Luke at any time.”
   Preferring May’s company to that of the dowager countess, now standing watching them from the drawing room, Isobel dallied too: “I always found it impossible to keep abreast of Luke, for he used to set a gruelling pace.”
   “Yes, but you are so dainty, and Luke . . . Oh, but I don’t recall your walking out with Luke.”
   “It was but a couple of times, when Michael was indisposed with estate matters, and Harry was here, at the time.”
   “Well, of course Luke and your brother became good friends, and no doubt still are. Oh, just think, Izzie. Think what it will be like when they are all here: finally at home.”
   “Precisely, and what could be better than a grand ball to bring old friends together?”
   “But we have not set eyes on them in so long, I dare say Michael’s dark moods will be darker still or pray, knocked out of him, entirely. I do pray it is the latter.”
   Isobel commiserated with May in regard to Michael’s moods, but said: “He had much to contend with before leaving home shores, and perchance, what he saw as a weighty burden back then, will seem less so upon his arrival home. After all, he earned Wellington’s respect as that of his military attaché and spymaster in Vienna.”
   “I have oft pondered why you ever married Michael. And yes, I know it was more or less an arranged marriage, or at least, so arranged you had little choice but to go through with it.” May’s eyes purposefully collided with hers, an overtly inquisitive expression. “I have no right to ask, but do you love him, Izzie, truly love him, or is it familial love as might be between good friends?”
   “I barely knew him before we were married. Our courtship was conducted by formal letter after we had danced but a few times at Almack’s. Then of course, during that grand picnic party here at Pennard, with parents and friends in attendance, he suddenly announced our betrothal, of which my father had already approved. Thence an engagement ball was held two weeks later. All, I might add, planned and plotted between your mother and my parents without my knowledge, and as you well know, Michael and I were then married but one month, and he went off to war.”
   “As did Luke, two-months later.”
   “And Harry, likewise,” intoned Isobel, not letting May ponder too long on past events
   “Yes, but Luke and Harry had already said they were going to war, and neither of them had any of the responsibilities Michael had. By rite of his title, he should have stayed here to protect us women. What if Napoleon had won every battle and then sailed across the water with his army? What of us? What might have become of us?”
   “Don’t you see, May? That is why he went. Michael went to war to defeat Napoleon, to protect us and the country at large. They all went for that very reason and just when it seemed safe to venture home, Napoleon escaped from Elba, and thence they were again forced to take action.”
   “I might forgive Michael, in time, but I shall make my thoughts known to him. Besides, I think his recklessness in rushing off to war was to show Luke and Harry he was no liver-bellied coward.”
   “Harry would never have accused Michael of cowardice for staying here, and I cannot imagine Luke thought any differently. Do allow Michael a little respite from war on his return, before slapping a war of words to his ears.”
   May laughed. “Oh I shall like as not box him about the ears and forgive him there and then.”
   The garden door fronting the drawing room was thrust wide, and the ever imposing portly dowager countess duly stepped forth in a purple silk gown. Her countenance was somewhat austere with grey hair pinned up and tucked beneath a black lace frilled mobcap as though the silly woman had taken to mourning a great loss rather than celebrating a glorious victory. Though for once, a smile as broad as her beam suddenly swept to her face.
   “Well, Isobel, what are your thoughts on the matter of Napoleon’s defeat?”
   “Much as your ladyship’s, I should imagine, and I am so very pleased to hear Michael will be coming home,” said she, when in reality she was living in dread of his homecoming.
   “At first I had wondered at Luke’s less than informative correspondence, and having feared the worst I dressed appropriate for the coming of bad news, and now it has occurred to me, what else was there to say, other than ‘Napoleon is done for’.”
   “Precisely, your ladyship. After all, if something was amiss, it would be stated within the letter.”
   “Then dear girl, how shall we celebrate their homecoming?”
   “I had thought a ball would be a grand gesture, not only for them, but for friends and fellow officers.”
   “Then a ball it shall be, and the preparations I shall leave in your capable hands.”
   “Did I hear correctly, mother?” queried May. “You want no say, in how the ball must be organised?”
   “Good heavens. No, not at all. I am away to London; on the morrow.”
   Shocked by her mother’s statement, incredulity swept to May’s face. “Might I ask why?”
   “It is merely a matter of business I must attend to before Michael sets foot in the house.” With that said, the dowager countess let slip a furtive smile. “It’s nothing too awful, but as my eldest son is a stickler for well-balanced ledgers, there are a few discrepancies in need of setting to rights.”
   “Mother,” exclaimed May. “You have not borrowed monies from . . . Oh, but you have, I can see you have.”
   “Yes dear, I lost heavily a week or so ago at carding, and must repay my dues forthwith, else my eldest boy shall see the error of my ways.”
   May’s brows arced, her tone erring moral high ground. “Michael, will like as not, curtail your expeditions to Almack’s, should he get to hear of your laying high stakes.”
   “I think not,” rallied the dowager countess, “Who shall tell him, eh? More to the point, he‘s my son, not my keeper, and I shall do as I will.”
   “As you will,” murmured May.
   “As I will,” intoned her mother, a dark look.
   And with a dismissive wave of the hand the dowager countess turned about and hurried back inside the house.
   May, let slip a deep sigh: “I do believe mother has just threatened to cut out my tongue should I breathe a word of her gambling to Michael. And how do you suppose she hid the discrepancies from Mr. Pomphrey?”
   Isobel laughed, and made toward the drawing room. “I suspect Michael was well aware of your mother’s penchant for carding long before he set sail for the Peninsular. As for Mr. Pomphrey. The dear man is simply petrified of your mother, albeit he is supposedly this household’s advisor and holder of the earl’s purse in his absence.”
   “I dare say, but how is mother to repay borrowed monies, when she was clearly short of funds in the first place?” May stopped mid-stride, as though struck by lightning. “Oh no. . . Do you suppose her intention is to sell something? Jewellery perhaps . . .”
   “If that is her only means of replacing stolen money, then it might . . .”
   “Stolen?” screeched May. “How can it be construed as stealing to borrow money from the housekeeping kitty?”
   Pausing before entering the house, Isobel lowered her voice. “Let us take the scenario of a cook, any cook in any household. Or a manservant for that matter, who borrows money from the kitchen’s kitty, being that of the tin set aside for paying the fish boy and the coal merchant. Would your mother consider such action, as the stealing of monies from the house?”
   “Well yes, of course she would.”
   “Then how is your mother’s borrowing of monies from the house any different?”
   “Oh Izzie, there is no comparison.”
   “I disagree, and if your mother has to sell a jewel or two in order to replenish that of which she has spirited away, it might serve to rein back her carding hand a little.”
   “Yes, you are right, and heaven knows what Michael would say to the discovery of a theft.”
   “Precisely, and I suspect he would suppose the thief dwelt below stairs, and what of us then? Could we stand by whilst servants are questioned, humiliated, and accused of stealing money, when not one of them had a hand in the kitty tin?”
   “There is that, I grant you, but neither would I dare betray mother.”
   “Perhaps not, and I dare say it would fall to my shoulders to protect the innocent from false accusations.”
   “But Izzie, you are the countess, and you, must do, as you see fit.”
   “Oh, I see. So it is I who will be placed in the perilous position of having a quiet word with Michael, that is, if your mother should fail to cover the shortfall in household funds.”
   May screwed up her nose in mischievous manner. “He is the lord and master, and you his wife. Moreover, I would not truly have the courage to shame mother in Michael’s eyes. He is her favourite, after all.”
   With that said, May brushed past her, and fled into the house.
   Heavens above, his sister nor his mother knew him at all well, or instead chose to ignore the fact he would likely accuse his wife of having overspent on frivolous items of a fashionable bent. How then could she plan a welcome home ball and account for its expenditure?