Read The Folly Online

Authors: M. C. Beaton

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

The Folly (2 page)

BOOK: The Folly
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But Rachel was nineteen and had no intention, or so she told herself, of marrying someone old enough to be her father.

She retreated back into a dream about that young man who was waiting for her in London and was surprised to come out of it in front of the gates to Mannerling. There was smoke rising from the lodge-house and she suddenly did not want to be seen. She walked along the edge of the estate wall to where she knew there was a broken part, but new stone faced her. It had been repaired. She frowned. It had been a convenient way of getting into the estate without being seen. But now she was actually there, it was unthinkable to retreat. She looked up
and down the road, but no one was in sight. She grasped the wall firmly and began to climb up. She then balanced on the top, seized hold of a tree branch on the other side, and dropped to the ground.

She made her way silently through the trees, nervous now in case a gamekeeper should come across her. She had heard the new folly was on a rise above the ornamental lake.

The Mannerling park was very large, and as she emerged from the shadow of the trees a warm sun struck down on her back and she began to feel tired. But ahead glittered the waters of the lake.

She rounded a stand of alder and there, stretched out in front of her, was the expanse of the lake and on a rise stood the folly. It was a Greek temple made of white marble with slender pillars and a domed top. She had to admit it was even more graceful than the original and was amazed it had been built in such a short time. She looked cautiously about her but there was no one in sight. Rachel walked across the springy turf starred with daisies and entered the temple, which was open all round like a gazebo. There were charming views in every direction.

And then she stiffened, suddenly aware she was not alone. She turned around.

Two children stood there, hand in hand, solemnly surveying her.

The boy had a mop of black curls and large brown eyes. The girl had the same black curls and brown eyes but was younger and smaller. The boy was slim and the little girl still retained a babyish plumpness.

Rachel found she was blushing guiltily. This, then, she thought, must be the Blackwood children.

“Are you from the house?” she asked.

They both nodded.

“Then you must not betray me,” said Rachel. “I am trespassing. I am Miss Rachel Beverley and I live over at Brookfield House, but Mannerling used to be my family home. What are your names?”

“Beth,” said the little girl shyly, “and this is my brother, Mark.”

“Are you happy here?” asked Rachel.

She sat down on a stone bench in the middle of the folly and the children sat down on either side of her.

“It is a very grand house,” said Beth tentatively.

“It is the most beautiful house in the world,” said Rachel firmly.

“I don’t like it,” said Mark. “Not at all. It’s haunted.”

Rachel gave an indulgent laugh. “It was never haunted.”

“It is now,” said Mark fiercely. “By a man who looks like a fox with sandy hair and green eyes.”

Rachel felt a shudder of pure superstitious dread. The boy had described the late Mr. Judd. But then there was a portrait of the late owner, who had committed suicide, hanging in the Long Gallery.

“But you must not tell Miss Terry or she will beat us,” said Mark.

“Is Miss Terry your governess?”

They both nodded.

“And does your father know she beats you?”

Two small heads shook in unison.

“But why not?”

A look of almost adult weariness crossed Mark’s face and he gave an unhappy little shrug. “Father has nothing to do with us.”

Rachel was suddenly sorry for them. “I used to take a boat out on the lake,” she said. “Is there still one there?”

Beth’s eyes lit up. “There is a blue one but we are too small to handle the oars.”

“Come along,” said Rachel, standing up. “I will take you.”

They walked together out of the folly and down the grassy slope to the lake. The small jetty was still there and moored to it was a rowing-boat.

“Are we really going out on the water?” asked Mark, his eyes shining.

“Yes, of course. It’s a lovely day and I will make sure you don’t fall in.”

She helped them into the little rowing-boat, cautioning them to be careful and sit down gently, and then she took the oars and began to row out into the middle of the lake. The two children sat, enrapt, Mark trailing a hand in the water. The sun was very warm. Rachel shipped the oars, removed her bonnet, and then took up the oars again. She reflected that the children were unnaturally well-behaved for their age.

“I should really take you back,” she said after a while. “I do not want to be caught trespassing.”

“Oh, just a little longer,” pleaded Mark. “We are not in the way of having fun, you see.”

Rachel smiled. “In that case, I will gladly risk disgrace. A little longer.”

The children seemed content to sit there, side by side, facing her as she rowed backwards and forwards across the lake.

And then she saw a look of fear in Mark’s face and
saw the way he grasped his little sister’s hand tightly. “What is it?” she asked sharply.

“Papa is arrived,” he said in a whisper, “and Miss Terry.”

Rachel began to row towards the jetty, feeling fury boiling up inside her. The children looked so scared and vulnerable.

As she approached she saw a tall man standing on the jetty, with a thin, bitter-looking woman beside him. Charles Blackwood and Miss Terry.

Charles Blackwood was dressed for riding in a black coat, leather breeches, and top-boots. He had thick black hair, fashionably cut, with silver wings at the sides, where his hair had turned white. He had odd slanting eyes of grass-green in a strong, handsome face. He had a tall, powerful figure.

Miss Terry had a crumpled little face, as if years of spite had withered it like a fallen apple. Her eyes were a pale, washed-out blue. Her thin shoulders were bent as though in false humility, but there was nothing humble in her glaring eyes.

Rachel helped the children out onto the jetty and then climbed up after them, aware, despite her temper, of her flushed face and tumbled hair. She realized she had left her hat in the boat.

“You bad, bad children,” exclaimed the governess. “How dare you escape me! You know what this means?”

They stood before her, heads bowed, hands clasped.

Rachel forgot about Mannerling, forgot about her trespass, and threw back her head, her blue eyes blazing.

“I am Miss Rachel Beverley of Brookfield House,”
she said haughtily, “and yes, the children know what you mean. You will beat them as you have no doubt done many times before.” She rounded on Charles Blackwood. “Oh, it is not unusual for children to be beaten, but it goes to my heart to see them so white and frightened. Shame on you, sir, for your most abysmal neglect of them. They are charming children and deserve better. They deserve parental love and kindness. Good day to you, sir.”

She marched off, her head high. Temper carried her straight to the drive and down it between the bordering lime-trees, where new leaves as green as Charles Blackwood’s eyes fluttered in the wind, to the lodge where the lodge-keeper stared at her in surprise as she opened the little gate at the side of the great gates and stepped out onto the road.

Rachel was too upset to feel dismayed when, as she approached home, she saw her own governess, Miss Trumble, walking to meet her.

“Why, Rachel!” exclaimed the governess. “What are you doing, walking unescorted and without your hat?”

So Rachel told her about the children and about what she had said to Charles Blackwood and then waited for a lecture. But, to her surprise, Miss Trumble gave a gentle laugh and said, “Why, I declare you are become a woman of principle at last. We will say no more about it.”

Rachel decided to write to Abigail and say that she would go to London. The hold Mannerling had held on her had gone. It belonged to a family now, another family, and the fact that it was an unhappy family had nothing to do with her.

But in the morning when she went out to find Barry Wort, the odd man, to give him the letter, she experienced a strange reluctance to hand it over. She tucked it in the pocket of her apron instead. Barry was weeding a vegetable bed, sturdy, dependable ex-soldier Barry, whose common sense had proved of such value in the past.

“Good morning, Barry,” said Rachel. He straightened up and leaned on his hoe and smiled at her.

“We’ve been getting some uncommon fine weather, Miss Rachel.”

“I went to Mannerling yesterday, Barry,” said Rachel abruptly.

“Well, now, miss, there do be a strange thing. I would have thought you cured of wanting the place.”

“I went for just one last visit.”

“Reckon that place is like gambling, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, miss. It’s always one last time.”

“I meant it this time. But wait until you hear of my adventure.”

Barry listened carefully to the story of the children and the confrontation. “You did well,” he said, not betraying that he had already heard the story from Miss Trumble. “There are beatings and beatings and those motherless children could do with a bit of kindness. What was this Mr. Blackwood like?”

“He is a very fine-looking man,” said Rachel slowly. “I had heard he was nearly forty and had expected—well, a middle-aged-looking gentleman.”

“Mr. Blackwood already has a good reputation in Hedgefield,” said Barry. “But any gentleman who settles his bills promptly gets a good reputation.
He’s caused quite a flurry in the district among the ladies.”

“The widows?”

“No, miss, all the young ladies do be setting their caps at him. He is reputed to be a fine-looking fellow, he has Mannerling and, they do say, a fortune as well.”

The thought flicked briefly through Rachel’s mind that she too might set her cap at the master of Mannerling, but then she remembered that grim face and the unhappy children. “I will not be of their number,” she said lightly. She turned and walked away, and it was only some time later that she realized she still had that letter to Abigail in her pocket.

“You never talk to us any more.” Belinda and Lizzie confronted Rachel later that day. “Are you going to London? For if you do, you must ask Abigail to invite us as well.”

“I have not made up my mind,” said Rachel loftily. “And I do talk to you. I am talking to you now.”

“Where were you yesterday morning? You just disappeared and Miss Trumble went out looking for you,” said Lizzie.

“I simply went for a little walk across the fields. Good heavens,” exclaimed Rachel. “Must I report to you every minute of the day?”

“But what of Mannerling and what of this new owner?”

“You know as much as I do. He is nearly forty, a widower with two children.”

“Do you think he means to entertain?”

“I don’t
,” snapped Rachel. “We promised Miss Trumble, if you remember, that we would put
all ambitions of regaining Mannerling out of our heads. Why? Would you have me entertain romantic thoughts of a man nearly in his dotage?”

“I suppose it is silly,” said Lizzie. “But it would be wonderful just to go to Mannerling again.”

Rachel looked at her uneasily. The loss of their home had affected Lizzie more than her sisters, so much so that she had once tried to drown herself. She remembered the little boy, Mark, saying that the house was haunted, and wondered if there was something supernatural about Mannerling that kept them all in its spell.

Betty, the little maid, piped up from the bottom of the stairs, “A carriage from Mannerling.”

They ran to the window. Their former coachman was driving a carriage. There were two footmen on the backstrap and Rachel recognized in one of them the unlovely features of John, who had once worked for the Beverleys.

“You had best go downstairs,” urged Lizzie, “for Mama is indisposed.”

“I shall change my gown,” decided Rachel. “Send Betty to me quickly.”

Miss Trumble received Charles Blackwood in the little parlour, regretting, not for the first time, her mistress’s parsimony in leaving the drawing-room unheated.

“I am sorry Lady Beverley is ill,” said Miss Trumble after studying his card. “I am Miss Trumble, governess to the Beverley sisters.”

His harsh face lightened as he looked down at her from his great height and Miss Trumble wondered rather sadly whether her poor old heart would ever
learn to stop beating faster at the sight of an attractive man.

“Then you are the very person I need to see,” he said.

“Indeed? Pray be seated, sir.”

He sat down in an armchair by the fire and looked around him with pleasure. The room was full of feminine clutter—bits of sewing, books, and magazines. There was a large bowl of spring flowers by the window on a round table.

“Were you aware,” began Charles, stretching out his long legs, “that I met one of your charges yesterday? She left her hat. I brought it back and gave it to the maid.”

“Yes, Rachel. She told me about it. She should not have been trespassing, but she misses her old home.”

“I was grateful to her for bringing to my attention the fact that my children had been subject to harsh attention from their governess. Excuse me, Miss Trumble, but there is something faintly familiar about you. Are you sure we have not met before?”

“Oh, no, sir. A governess such as myself, immured in the country as I am, hardly moves in the same circles as such as yourself.”

“Still, there is something…Never mind. The reason I am come…”

The door opened and Rachel came in, followed by Lizzie and Belinda.

Charles Blackwood got to his feet and bowed. Rachel was very beautiful and seemed even more so than the first time he had seen her, her fair looks contrasting with Belinda’s dark-haired beauty and Lizzie’s waiflike appeal.

They all sat down.

Charles turned to Rachel. “I was just beginning to explain to your governess that after your visit yesterday I told Miss Terry, my children’s governess, to leave immediately. I am looking for a suitable lady to tutor them and am come to you for help.”

“I think I can help you,” said Miss Trumble, adjusting the folds of a very modish silk gown. Rachel looked at that gown. It was one of Miss Trumble’s best, almost as if she had been expecting such a call. “My girls’ schooling has been cut back to a mere two hours in the afternoon, and time lies heavy on my hands. With Lady Beverley’s permission, of course, I could offer to tutor your children if they were brought over here every day. My girls could help in their education, and company younger than mine would benefit them.”

BOOK: The Folly
12.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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