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Authors: M. C. Beaton

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance, #Regency

The Folly

BOOK: The Folly
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The Folly

A Novel of Regency England

Being the Fourth Volume of The Daughters of Mannerling

M. C. Beaton/ Marion Chesney

Copyright

The Folly

Copyright ©1996 by Marion Chesney
Cover art to the electronic edition copyright © 2010 by RosettaBooks, LLC

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

First electronic edition published 2011 by RosettaBooks LLC, New York.
ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795315558

This series is dedicated to
Rosemary Barradell, with love.

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter One

Yet ah! why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise
.


T
HOMAS
G
RAY

R
ACHEL WALKED SLOWLY
back to Brookfield House. It was a blustery spring day. Her muslin skirts blew about her body. She had been on a walk to Mannerling, her old family home, and it had distressed her to see it still lie empty and neglected. Her sister Abigail had promised her a Season in London, but Rachel was reluctant to go.

Like her five sisters, she had been obsessed with the idea of somehow regaining Mannerling, but she had persuaded herself that the stupid dream was long gone. It was only natural that she should want to see the great house she had once loved lived in again.

Now three sisters were married and gone, and there was only she herself, Belinda, and Lizzie left. They must, she reflected, be among the most highly educated females in the land, for their mother, Lady Beverley, still retained the services of an excellent
governess, Miss Trumble, although the girls had overgrown the services of one. Lady Beverley’s real reason was that the governess miraculously knew how to soothe her frequent headaches and did not seem to notice on quarter-day that her mistress had “forgotten” to pay her.

Rachel entered the back garden of the house by a circuitous route. She did not want anyone to know she had gone out walking without a maid.

She went up to her room and changed out of her walking clothes. Lessons were now reduced to two hours in the afternoon. Lizzie bounced into her room, her red hair flying. “No lessons,” she crowed. “We are to make a call.”

“Where?”

“Mary Stoddart—I mean, Mary Judd.”

Rachel’s face darkened. The vicar’s daughter had married one of the previous owners of Mannerling, a Mr. Judd. Mr. Judd had committed suicide, but during her brief reign as mistress of Mannerling, Mary had triumphed over the Beverley sisters.

“Why should we go there?” demanded Rachel. “We hardly ever call.”

“She sent a note to say she had momentous news. Mama is indisposed. She says Miss Trumble must go with us instead.”

“What ails Mama now?”

Lizzie gave an unladylike shrug. “Oh, you know. It is always this and that. In fact, she will probably brood over the accounts books.”

Ever since the late Sir William Beverley had lost Mannerling due to his gambling debts, Lady Beverley had become something of a miser. Her three elder daughters had all married well and often sent
money, and it was only due to the frequent goading of Miss Trumble that the purse-strings were loosened. Miss Trumble had a way of pointing out that the Beverleys were not living in a way due to their position, which often spurred Lady Beverley on to buying new dresses for her remaining daughters and coals for the fires.

“Mary is always over-exercised about something trivial,” said Rachel. “But it will come as a welcome break from the schoolroom. We surely do not need any more schooling. Mama says that gentlemen prefer stupid women.”

“And Miss Trumble,” pointed out Lizzie, “says that the only gentlemen worth having are the ones that appreciate a woman with a brain.”

“Miss Trumble is unmarried,” countered Rachel. “When do we leave?”

“In ten minutes. Miss Trumble has been looking for you. Where were you?”

She looked at Rachel’s muddy pattens, lying discarded in a corner of the room.

“I went for a walk to Mannerling,” said Rachel defiantly. “Don’t you dare tell Miss Trumble. She’ll start fretting that I am still in the grip of the old obsession when I was only prompted by a natural curiosity.”

“Was there any smoke from the chimneys? Any carriages?”

“No, still deserted. And there were weeds growing at the side of the drive. The lodge was deserted. So many lost their employ when the Deverses left.”

“The servants were very cruel to us.” Lizzie tossed her red hair. “We should not mourn their bad luck.”

“I have often thought the servants had reason to
dislike us,” said Rachel. “Do you think this bonnet will do? Oh, why am I bothering about what to wear on a visit to the vicarage? I mean, we treated them like machines, the servants, that is.”

“They were well-housed and well-fed,” pointed out Lizzie. “I think they behaved very badly. I must prepare myself or Miss Trumble will come looking for me.”

Barry Wort, the odd man, who acted as general factotum, was driving the small Beverley carriage when they set out with Miss Trumble sitting beside him. It was an open carriage. Behind sat the Beverley sisters, Rachel, fair and blue-eyed, Belinda, dark-haired and beautiful in a placid way, and fiery-haired, green-eyed Lizzie.

What would become of them? wondered Miss Trumble. Rachel, the eldest of the three, had grown even more beautiful since the marriage of her twin, Abigail. Her fair hair was almost silver and her eyes large and blue. Abigail had always been the more spirited of the twins, but since she had left and Rachel was no longer in her shadow, the girl seemed more confident, more animated. But how could any gently born miss succeed in the marriage market with only an insignificant dowry? Lady Beverley constantly refused to discuss Rachel’s dowry and whether she had increased it from a few hundred pounds. Rachel’s three elder sisters’ successful marriages made her feel that the Beverleys’ luck in that direction had surely run out.

“Why cannot we have a closed carriage?” complained Belinda, holding on to her hat. “I swear,
with the funds Mama must be getting from our married sisters, we could well afford one.”

“Oh, you know Mama,” sighed Rachel. “But it
is
a bore, for it means on wet days we cannot use the carriage to go anywhere. I wonder what Mary has to tell us.”

“Perhaps she has somehow gained the acquaintance of the mysterious Duke of Severnshire,” said Lizzie.

“I doubt it.” Belinda clutched at her bonnet again. “The duke is reported to be travelling abroad and is considered to be a bit of a recluse. No one has seen him. When Papa was alive, he and Mama—at Mama’s instigation, of course—pretended a strap on the carriage had broken, although Mama got the coachman to cut it conveniently outside the gates of his palace.”

“Oh, I remember,” laughed Rachel. “Mama was monstrously offended. The duke’s servants repaired the strap, the housekeeper served them tea. They were informed his grace was not at home, and yet Mama swears that when they left she saw him looking out of the window.”

“If he is such a recluse, how is it that Mama knew what he looked like?” asked Lizzie.

“Because there was a rather bad portrait of him on display at the town hall at the time.”

“Did she say whether he was handsome?”

“He was accounted very handsome before the visit and nothing out of the common way after it.” Rachel pulled a shawl closer about her shoulders. “We are nearly there. Miss Trumble,” she called to the erect figure on the box, “we need not stay long, need we?”

“Not very long,” Miss Trumble called back. “The sky is getting dark and I fear it might rain.”

“I hope the vicar is not there,” muttered Lizzie. “He was detestable when he used to oil around us at Mannerling and he is now equally detestable when he patronizes us.”

But only Mary was there to greet them, Mary dressed in black and with her black eyes shining with excitement. Mary still wore mourning, not out of grief, but because a tipsy gentleman at an assembly had happened to remark that she looked well in black.

After the ladies were settled in the vicarage parlour, Mary said, “What news!”

“Well,
what
news?” demanded Rachel crossly.

“Why, Mannerling has been bought.”

“Bought,” chorused the three sisters, their eyes shining while Miss Trumble looked at them with something like dismay on her lined face. “Who has bought Mannerling?”

“Do let us have some tea,” said Mary, ringing the bell. The sisters waited impatiently while she gave orders to the servant.

“The new owner,” said Mary, “is a general, retired, of course, General Sir Arthur Blackwood.”

“Retired,” echoed Lizzie in dismay. “Then he is old?”

“Very old, I believe, and widowed.”

“Might do for Miss Trumble,” muttered Lizzie and then was quelled by a look from that lady.

“But he has a son,” said Mary. “A widower.”

Their eyes brightened but Mary, infuriatingly—
and, Miss Trumble shrewdly thought, deliberately—chose that moment to serve tea and cakes.

“So?” demanded Rachel at last after they had all been pressed to choose and praise seed-cake.

Mary’s black eyebrows went up in query. “The widower,” prompted Belinda.

“He is Charles Blackwood. His wife has been dead these past two years, leaving him with two children, a boy aged eight years and a little girl of six. Mr. Blackwood, the son, was a major in the Hussars, but sold out on the death of his wife. He is accounted very rich.”

“How do you know all this?” asked Miss Trumble curiously.

“His agent was residing at the Green Man at Hedgefield and was engaging servants. They are to take up residence next month.”

“Did you find out how old Mr. Blackwood is?” asked Belinda.

“I believe him to be middle-aged, nearly forty.”

Three faces fell. A widower of nearly forty with two small children did not seem in the least a marriageable prospect.

Mary saw she had lost their interest and said, “Mr. Blackwood has been seen in Hedgefield and is accounted very handsome.”

But “nearly forty” had sounded the death-knell of their hopes, for although none of them would admit it, each sister privately held on to that old dream of marrying some owner of their old home and so getting it back.

A few fat drops of rain struck the window-panes. “We really must leave.” Miss Trumble got to her feet.

“Such a pity you only have an open carriage,” mourned Mary.

“Just like you, Mary,” said Rachel, adjusting her shawl about her shoulders.

When they had climbed into the carriage, Barry produced umbrellas but the wind had risen, driving the rain into their faces.

Rachel felt very low. It was silly to hang on to the dream of Mannerling, she knew that. But logic warred with emotion in her brain. Nearly forty! A great age. She should write to Abigail and accept the offer of a Season in London. Among the whirl of balls and parties, she would forget Mannerling.

The days grew milder and the first leaves began to grow on the trees, and still Rachel had made no move to go to London. News of the new occupants of Mannerling began to filter to Brookfield House. The gardens were quickly being restored to their former glory and the temple which Mr. Judd had blown up out of spite and then repaired had been taken down and a new Greek temple, a folly, had taken its place. Rachel felt obscurely insulted by this. Everything should be left as it was. Somehow it was the thought of this folly which drove her into going back to Mannerling, just for one look, just to see if it looked like the old one and whether things were about the same as she so fondly remembered them to be.

One sunny day when Miss Trumble had gone into Hedgefield with Barry, and her sisters were playing battledore and shuttlecock in the garden, Rachel slipped out the back way and then set out for Mannerling.

Fluffy clouds sailed across the sky. As she walked along, Rachel wondered for the first time why Miss Trumble had not encouraged her to go to London. Miss Trumble, who would normally have done anything in her power to remove at least one of them from what she called the house’s malign influence, was strangely silent on the subject.

As she walked along under the tall trees which arched over the road, with light-green leaves fluttering in the wind, she decided that one last look at Mannerling would be enough. Then she would go back home and send an express to her twin. Only look how deliriously happy Abigail was in marriage, she thought. Perhaps in London there would be a young man waiting for her, someone to love. Her eyes filled with dreams. People called them the unlucky Beverleys, and yet Isabella, the eldest, then Jessica, and finally Abigail had all made successful marriages. “To men much older than they,” said a little voice in her head.

BOOK: The Folly
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