Read A Mourning Wedding Online

Authors: Carola Dunn

A Mourning Wedding

To Carole,
with fond memories of our trek around
the stately homes of East Anglia.
Thanks!
L
ady Eva Devenish capped her gold fountain pen and leant back with a sigh, flexing her beringed fingers. These days her hand was always stiff after writing. Sometimes she even felt the beginning of a cramp, but she wasn't going to let it stop her. Her writing was still tiny and neat, and her eyesight nearly as good as ever.
She pulled the heavy ledger-book towards her, blotted the ink, and reread the last paragraph she had written. The evidence seemed incontrovertible. She just hoped no one else would put the two snippets of gossip together.
It was really very naughty of her great-niece to spend the night with Lord Gerald. If Lucy had not been going to marry the man in just a couple of months, Lady Eva would have dealt with her severely. As the wedding date was set, least said soonest mended. Morals had started going downhill when the dear Queen died, and that dreadful German war seemed to have finished them off.
Besides, Lucy had always gone her own way. Look at that photography business! It would have been unthinkable in Lady Eva's youth. Yet, though she wouldn't dream of telling her so, she admired a certain independence in a girl, as long as the proprieties were observed.
She opened the right-hand bottom drawer of her desk and not
without difficulty slid the heavy book into its place. Family—hers and her late husband's—she kept in the right drawer, others in the left. Others meant those less closely related than second cousin, for between them the Devenishes and the Fotheringays were connected to three-quarters of the aristocracy, by marriage if not by blood.
And Lady Eva knew more about them all than anyone else did. For decades she had collected rumours, checked them insofar as was practicable, and written them down. People would be amazed if they realized how much information she had stored away.
Some of them would be not merely amazed but shocked and horrified.
She locked the bottom right drawer and tucked the key away in the secret place at the back of the central drawer. In the wrong hands such information could be dangerous. It was rather like dynamite, though, quite harmless when properly handled, and of course Lady Eva knew just what she was doing.
“D
arling, I wish you hadn't planned a
morning
wedding. I'm getting the most frightful morning sickness these days. I'm more likely to need support than to be able to support you.” Daisy reached for another buttery toasted teacake.
“Bosh!” Blood red nail varnish gleamed as Lucy deftly slid the willow-pattern plate on its lace doily across the dark oak table, away from Daisy. “You're as healthy as a horse.”
“I'm eating for two,” Daisy protested. “And making up for lost time, too. You haven't seen me between seven and eleven in the morning. I can barely manage to down a cup of tea for breakfast.”
“Too sickening, darling!” Lucy said sardonically, her clear soprano turning heads as it rang through the small tea-shop.
It was all very well for her. She never had the least difficulty keeping the straight-up-and-down figure—still fashionable in 1924, alas—which Daisy would never attain. But Lucy moved the plate back within Daisy's reach before pouring herself a second cup of Earl Grey.
Daisy didn't care for Earl Grey at the best of times. Now the musky scent gave her a twinge of incipient nausea. She hastily took another teacake, the smells of cinnamon and nutmeg bringing comfort
to her queasy stomach. The Cosy Corner didn't put in as much spice as the Bluebell Tea Rooms used to, she thought regretfully, but after what happened at the Bluebell she'd never been quite brave enough to go back.
She turned her attention back to her friend. As always, Lucy was the epitome of the stylish young woman, from the feathered cloche perched on her dark, sleek bob to the fashionable knee-length hemline, flesh-coloured silk stockings, and strapped shoes below.
Usually cool, calm and collected, she was now fidgeting with her teaspoon, although she didn't take sugar in her tea. She regarded Daisy with uncharacteristic anxiety and lowered her voice to say, “For a moment there you looked quite green. Darling, will it really be too much for you to come to Haverhill a few days early?”
“Everyone says morning sickness only lasts a month, or six weeks at most. The trouble is, they say it in that frightfully hearty, encouraging way that makes one sure they're concealing the bad news.”
“The wedding's not for another month. I don't know how I'll cope without you to rely on for a breath of sanity, Daisy. All the family will be gathering, and besides the general fuss, some of my relations are utterly poisonous.”
“Her brothers and her cousins, whom she reckons up by dozens, her brothers and her cousins and her aunts!” Daisy misquoted
HMS Pinafore.
“I suppose you're getting married at Haverhill rather than in town because Lord Haverhill's getting a bit creaky about the joints?”
“Actually, Grandfather may be eighty but he's as frisky as a spring lamb, and Grandmama too.”
“I can't imagine Lady Haverhill frisking!”
“No, much too Victorian, but she's healthy as a horse. They both adore any excuse to gather the whole family at Haverhill. It's Uncle Aubrey who has a dicky heart, though I don't believe it's quite as bad as Aunt Maud likes to think.”
“I seem to remember Lady Fotheringay being a bit of a worrier.”
“Fussbox, more like,” said Lucy with an unladylike snort. “Cosseting him makes her feel important.”
“It must be difficult playing second fiddle for decades,” Daisy said charitably. “She'd like to be the Countess of Haverhill before your uncle pops off, I expect. It's only natural. I suppose Lady Eva will be there. She rather terrifies me. I'm always sure she's reading my mind.”
“Oh, Aunt Eva doesn't need supernatural means to collect her information. She's a bit of a bore but really quite a decent old trout.”
“I bet there are a lot of people who feel threatened by her curiosity. People who have something they desperately want to hide.”
“It's not as if she ever does anything with what she finds out. She just likes to know what everyone's up to. Our sort of people, I mean. She couldn't care less about Mr. Bones the Butcher.”
“It wouldn't surprise me if she found out I was pregnant before I did! Or did she lose interest in me when I married a policeman?”
“It was touch and go,” Lucy said frankly, “but your mother is still the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and your sister's Lady John. In spite of which you might have been relegated to
hoi polloi
if Alec was an ordinary bobby, not a Detective Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard. His title may not be noble but it has a certain lustre.”
Daisy laughed. “That's all that reconciled Mother to my marriage, insofar as she's ever reconciled to anything once she's decided to disapprove. At least your relatives, however poisonous, can't possibly disapprove of Binkie.”
“No,” Lucy agreed complacently, leaning back in the high-backed Windsor chair. “The son of a marquis, even a younger son, is a creditable match.”
“Lucy, you do love him, don't you?”
“I … I think so. I'm pretty certain, actually. I'm not likely to find anyone else who's willing to let me keep up the photography business after we're married.”
“You can wind him around your little finger.” Disturbed by her friend's attitude, Daisy sighed.
“One can't ever be absolutely certain, can one?” Lucy pleaded.
“I am. Most of the time, anyway. Right-oh, darling, I'll come to Haverhill to hold your hand and cheer you on. Maybe I can get an article out of it for my American editor: ‘A Fashionable English Wedding,' perhaps.”
“Thanks, darling.” Lucy took out her compact to powder her nose and refresh her crimson lip-salve. “I've got to run. Lady Moresby wants yet another portrait, though I can't think why, considering her face. But she says I'm the only photographer who brings out her ‘inner being.' By the way, not a word about the photography. The parents assume I'm going to give up the studio once I'm Lady Gerald Bincombe.”
“I'll be silent as the grave,” Daisy promised.
 
On a sunny afternoon in June, Lord Haverhill's dark blue Daimler sped between the flat, emerald green fields of Cambridgeshire. Leaning back in the luxuriously soft leather seat she shared with a hamper from Fortnum and Mason, Daisy caught a glimpse to her right of their goal.
Her stepdaughter, Belinda, would love to see Haverhill, she thought. At this distance, the mansion resembled an exotic hybrid of a mediæval castle and a Gothic cathedral. The sprawling mass, complete with towers and spires, turrets and battlements, oriels and arches, was a triumph of early Victorian neo-Gothic.
One of the two tallest spires belonged to the chapel where Lucy would be married. In Victorian times, the entire household, including throngs of servants, had gathered there for daily prayers. Nowadays it saw a Sunday service only when a clergyman was visiting, as the present Lord Haverhill had no private chaplain.
Turning off a narrow lane, the motor-car approached the mansion along an avenue of elms. The grounds visible between the trees were well-kept parkland with scattered trees and a spinney off to the right. None of the fallow deer Daisy remembered were visible.
The Daimler drew up before the broad flight of marble steps leading up to the cathedral-sized front door. The chauffeur came around to open Daisy's door.
She stepped out and paused to contemplate the vast façade. Not having visited for a while, she had forgotten how enormous the house was. From here, only the main block was visible, but that alone could have swallowed Alec's suburban semi-detached without a hiccup. Altogether, Haverhill was at least twice, perhaps three times, the size of Fairacres, Daisy's childhood home.
As she started up the steps, Lucy came out through a wicket in the great double door and hurried down to meet her. Elegant as ever in a simple summer frock of buttercup yellow linen, belted at the hips with a white sash, she made Daisy feel crumpled and dusty. Behind her, a woman with mousy marcelled hair paused on the top step, watching.
“Darling, I hope the journey wasn't too frightfully tiresome. I managed to escape to the library …”
“The library? You?” Daisy said, laughing.
“ … To watch out for you.” Lucy gestured at the windows to their left. “No one but John is ever there—you know we're not a bookish family—but Sally saw me go in and followed. She's trying to persuade me to let her little darling carry my train. I'm supposed to make an exception because the brat will be Earl of Haverhill in fifty years or so.”
“Sally is your cousin Rupert's wife, I take it?”
“Yes. Then there are my sisters-in-law who think their offspring should have precedence, and Mummy, who agrees on no children in the wedding but wants me to carry tuberoses, which always make me sneeze, and …”
“Darling, you're babbling.”
“I'm well on the way to becoming a raving lunatic. Thank heaven you've come, Daisy.”
“Introduce me to Mrs. Rupert and then you'll have to escort me
to my room for a lie-down before tea. I'm quite exhausted from the journey.”
Lucy peered into her face, concerned. “You don't look … Oh, you mean … Right-oh.” She raised her voice. “Sally, I don't believe you've met my friend Daisy Fletcher.”
Mrs. Rupert Fotheringay's tweed skirt, silk blouse, and pearls, though perfectly suitable for the country, looked formal beside Lucy's frock, and her tone was more formal than friendly as she said, “Welcome to Haverhill, Mrs. Fletcher.”
“I'm taking Daisy up to her room to rest after the journey.”
“That hardly seems necessary as your grandfather sent the Daimler for her.” The tone was distinctly chilly now. “Those of us who came down by train—”
“Daisy's pregnant,” Lucy announced baldly. “Her husband wouldn't let her come if she had to take the train.”
“The car didn't come just for me. It was crammed full of parcels for the wedding,” Daisy explained.
“Come on, darling, before you drop.” Lucy linked her arm through Daisy's and practically dragged her into the house. “Sally is jealous,” she hissed, “because this time I'm the bride who gets all the attention, and I'm getting a bigger show than she did. Heaven knows I could do without it! If I'd realized what a big family wedding entails, I'd have made Binkie elope to Gretna.”
The hall was cavernous, lit high above by windows in the octagonal base of the clock tower. Between the surrounding marble pillars lurked portraits by Van Dyck, Lely and Raeburn. Daisy and Lucy picked their way across the chequerboard marble floor between stacks of trestle tables and folding chairs.
“Good gracious, how many people are coming?”
“Six hundred to the breakfast, most of them relatives. My great-grandfather had thirteen children, all dead but three, but there's their children and children's children. Then there's Mummy's side of
the family. And Binkie's mother's guest list was almost as long as ours. Grandfather's paying for the lot, the lamb, not expecting Daddy to cough up out of his own pocket.”
“That's jolly generous.”
“Oh, he has pots of money. In spite of—or perhaps because of—all those children, my great-grandfather popped off before ruinous death duties came in.”
“Helpful of him!”
“Very. Mind you, Grandfather has plenty of expenses what with all the people battening on him. Not only those living here. Great-uncle Montagu gets enough income from the estate to live on. And Grandfather gives Uncle Henry and Daddy allowances, and Rupert too, because he's the eldest son of the eldest son. Girls are supposed to stay at home until they marry.”
“Don't I know it!” Daisy had been expected to reside with her mother or the cousin who inherited Fairacres when her father and brother died. Like Lucy, she had chosen to earn her own living, in her case with writing, and they had shared digs. “It was fun, but I have to confess I did get fearfully tired of living on eggs and sardines and mousetrap cheese.”
“It's no fun without you, darling. But no more of that from now on. Binkie gets an allowance from his father, and he's doing surprisingly well in the City. You're all right with stairs, aren't you, darling?” Lucy asked as they reached the splendidly carved oak staircase, saved from the demolition of the ancient house which once stood on this spot. “Grandmama told Jennifer to put you in the room next to mine. First floor, not too much climbing.”
“I'm perfectly well, now that the beastly morning sickness is over. But thanks all the same.”
“Lucy!” Lady Fotheringay came out of the dining room to their right. A short, plump, grey-haired lady, she was aflutter with gauzy draperies in a variety of pastel shades. “Lucy, such a shame … Oh,
it's Daisy Dalrymple isn't it? How lovely to see you again, my dear. But you're married now, aren't you. Perhaps I ought to call you Mrs. Fletcher?”

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