Helena's Bone ~ by Ulrike
None of the neighbours of Erpingham Hall could remember any other day as disastrous as the one when Sir Paul Erpingham died. True, the Erpinghams had been through a great deal of bad times, but somehow they had always managed. They had never been very rich, but always well-to-do, and had been able to live a comfortable life with their income.
Unfortunately, Sir Paul Erpingham had been a bit too fond of good company, gambling and betting. As long as his wife had been alive, there had been some sort of prudence in the household, though even she could not do much to restrain her husband's extravagance. Once Lady Erpingham had died, things had got worse than ever before. No one had been able to make Sir Paul cut down on his expenses. He had spent every single shilling he had, and spending money that he had not had was the logical consequence.
Then he had realised how desperate his financial situation was, and had found no other way out than to go home, lock himself into the library and blow his brains out.
"They say it was a nasty picture when they found him," Mrs Farley, professional village gossip, whispered to her neighbour while they watched the funeral. She evidently enjoyed herself – a suicide did not happen every day. In her opinion, Sir Paul should have been buried the old way suicides had been dealt with – at the crossroads with a stake through his heart.
The deceased's family were assembled around the Erpingham family tomb in the local churchyard – as well as Sir Paul's creditors. They, it seemed, were determined to remind the family of their claims.
There were Sir Paul's children – Lady Woodward, Miss Helena Erpingham, and the two boys, Paul and Frederick. Sir James Woodward was there, of course. He had been one of the people who had tried to advise the deceased, but had been as successful as anyone trying to do that.
"Don't you think he's awfully handsome," Mrs Farley whispered to her neighbour. "Sir James Woodward, I mean. But I have heard he is of a rather cruel disposition – my husband said he beats his dogs for the slightest reasons. Not a man to be trusted, a man who beats his dogs."
The neighbour, a Mrs Jenkins, agreed. Sir James Woodward was a good-looking man, aged thirty, but though he was well respected in the neighbourhood, no one really liked him. He was not an amiable man. He had married Sir Paul's eldest daughter, Grace, no doubt because she had been the most eligible bride one could have found in the vicinity. She was from a good family, rather pretty, well-bred, and tolerably rich. However, these were about all the agreeable things that could be said about Lady Woodward. Her younger sister, Miss Helena Erpingham, was much more popular among the villagers than Lady Woodward was, even though her dark complexion prevented her from being a beauty. Miss Erpingham was a clever and friendly young woman, and as long as she had been keeping her father's house, there had always been help available for poor parishioners.
It was a touching picture, Mrs Jenkins thought, the way Miss Erpingham was standing next to her father's coffin, her hands on her brothers' shoulders as if to support them. There was a great deal of affection between the three siblings, one could see that.
Fourteen-year-old Paul Erpingham, Sir Paul's eldest son and heir, desperately fought back his tears. Big boys did not cry, not even when their whole world was going to pieces. His younger brother, twelve-year-old Frederick, had no scruples about showing his feelings. He cried openly, and Mrs Jenkins's heart went out to the poor orphaned boy. He would have to stay with his sister and brother-in-law – that alone was a reason to pity him. Sir James Woodward had never shown kindness to any of the members of his wife's family. Coming to think of it – neither had Lady Woodward.
The guests were finally gone, and Helena Erpingham retired to her room. It had been a long day for all of them, she thought.
Her sister and her husband were still seated in the drawing room. Helena could hear their hushed voices, but was not interested in joining them. She knew only too well what their conversation topic would be.
"Once your father's debts are paid, not much will be left for your sister and brothers to live on," Sir James said. "They will be lucky if the house and grounds will still be in their possession."
"How are they to keep the house and grounds without an income?" Lady Woodward asked.
"The best thing will be to find a tenant for the house," Sir James said. "With this money, they can retain the house until your brother is old enough to take over. He will have to find a rich wife to keep him, of course, or make a fortune for himself. That will not be too difficult – there are plenty of rich factory-owners whose daughters are in search of a titled husband."
"You want my brother to marry a nobody for her money?" Even Lady Woodward's friends had to admit that she was a snob. The thought of her brother marrying some vulgar person made her hair stand on end. The fact that it would have to be a vulgar rich person did not make a difference to her.
Sir James shrugged. "Beggars cannot be choosers," he said.
"Where will they stay when this house is let," Lady Woodward asked, leaving aside the unpleasant topic of her brother's marriage.
"Your brothers will not bother us too much," Sir James said. "They will be at school most of the time. I suppose they will only come home during their holidays, and even then something can be arranged – they have friends, haven't they? Your sister, however, may become a problem. Honestly, my dear, I do not wish to have your old maid of a sister in my house."
"Helena is not an old maid," Lady Woodward protested. "She is three-and-twenty."
"Three-and-twenty, rather plain, much too outspoken and, if I may remind you, my dear, penniless," Sir James said, coldly. "It will be hard to get rid of her in a decent way."
"Certainly one of your friends…" Lady Woodward began.
Sir James gave an unpleasant laugh. "None of my friends is foolish enough to marry a woman with no fortune at all," he said. "If they were, they'd be no friends of mine. I cannot abide fools."
"On the other hand, James, it might be useful to have Helena around," Lady Woodward said. "And whatever you say, she does have her qualities. She might not marry a man of your consequence, of course, but then not every woman can expect to be quite as lucky as I was. Believe me, Helena will not be a problem."
"I hope so," Sir James said sourly. "Otherwise we shall have to send her to live with her uncle in Savannah. It is about time he takes notice of his family."
Sir Paul Erpingham's younger brother had been a captain in the navy and had married a rich American heiress. Unfortunately, the ties between the brothers had never been really close, and George Erpingham had hardly ever written. He had been informed of his brother's death, of course, but it was rather uncertain how he would react on this piece of news.
"We shall keep Uncle Erpingham as our last resort," Lady Woodward said. She was looking forward to having her sister with her. Finally there was someone to take over the more unpleasant tasks of housekeeping, while she could concentrate on the representative ones. It would be useful to have Helena around.
Helena was sitting in her room, already dressed for bed, but still writing a letter to her old school friend, Cecilia Harrington, nee Fletcher.
I do hope you will never be in the situation I am in at the moment, but then it is hardly possible. My father has left us quite destitute, and I know what awaits me in Hilmerton Park, should I go there and stay with my sister and Sir James Woodward – nothing but misery and humiliation. If I could, I would do anything to prevent this, but I know I cannot. For my brothers' sake, I shall have to endure everything. They will need someone to come home to, and my sister is not the person – she has never been very close to the boys.
I know you will pray for me, dearest Cecy, and you will let me know if you have any advice concerning my further proceedings.
I beg your pardon for writing but a short letter today, but it has been a long and exhausting day. I shall make up for the brevity of this letter next time I write.
Helena read the letter once again, sealed it, and then went to her bed. She extinguished the candle and lay back in her pillows. Suddenly, the full impact of her situation dawned on her, and she began to sob. Ever since her father had died, Helena had been forced to hold back her tears – things had to be done, her brothers had to be comforted, the funeral had to be arranged, the servants needed to be directed – and no one had helped her. Her sister had sent her an express, eloquently stating how stricken she was, but offering no help at all. Helena had had to get by on her own, until Grace and her awful husband had arrived and taken over – and Grace had taken all the credit for everything Helena had done.
Helena knew that Sir James Woodward did not like her. It did not surprise her – it would have surprised her to find out that he cared for anyone but himself. Life with him would be difficult. Helena shivered at the mere thought of it. If there were a way, no matter what….Helena had seriously considered becoming a governess, but she knew her sister would never approve of it. Lady Woodward's sister working as a lowly teacher? She would rather see her dead and buried, Helena believed.
But there was no other genteel way of making a living, Helena thought. Nothing that would be acceptable to her snobbish sister and her even worse husband. The only thing they would accept was her joining them at Hilmerton Park, and they would not let her forget how very caring and charitable they were.
Tired out with crying, Helena finally fell asleep.
"This is how things are standing at the moment," Mr Barton, Sir Paul Erpingham's solicitor, said. He had arrived early in the morning and had assembled the family in the drawing room to read Sir Paul's will.
"What precisely does this mean," Paul Erpingham, Sir Paul's eldest son, asked his sister.
"We are bankrupt," Helena said, gloomily.
"I would not exactly use this term," Mr Barton said, cautiously.
"Which one would you use then, Mr Barton?" Helena asked. "I do believe bankrupt sums it up pretty well." Why all those euphemisms, she wondered. Why did Mr Barton not just tell them the truth?
"I have a few suggestions to make," Sir James said. Lady Woodward gave her husband a proud look.
"As the heirs' guardian, you have every right to do so," Mr Barton said.
Sir James explained his plans to them – to sell as much land as possible to cover Sir Paul's debts, and to find a tenant for the house and grounds in order to finance their maintenance.
"When Sir Paul is of age, he can take over his estate – at least what is left of it – without any debts, and can start building it up again to what it used to be," Sir James finished his speech. Helena had to admit that he had a point, but her heart bled at the thought of having to sell so much of the Erpingham estate – even if she knew that there was hardly any other way of retaining the house.
"Well said, Sir James," Mr Barton said. "If I may say so, I was just about to suggest something like this, but of course it is much better if a member of the family has come up with the idea before me. This makes it…more acceptable."
"What about us," Frederick asked. "Where are we going to stay when the house is let?"
"You spend most of your time at school as it is," Sir James said, unimpressed by the urgency in the boy's voice. "It can hardly make a difference to you whether you spend your holidays here or at Hilmerton Park."
It did make a huge difference to Frederick, but he did not say so.
"And Helena?" Paul asked. "Where is she going to stay?"
"At Hilmerton Park, of course," Lady Woodward said, indignantly. "What did you think?"
That, at least, was a comfort, Frederick thought. The prospect of spending his holidays with Sir James and Lady Woodward was not tempting, but if Helena would be there, too, life at Hilmerton Park would be endurable.
"Are there any other suggestions?" Mr Barton asked, glad that someone else had brought up the unpleasant topic. Nobody answered. "In that case, Sir James, I will start to work on clearing Sir Paul's debts, and finding a tenant for Erpingham Hall – with your permission, of course."
"Permission granted," Sir James said, with an unpleasant smile. Helena hated the look on his face. He had taken over control, and he seemed to enjoy every bit of it. More than ever she hoped that she would not have to stay with him and her sister for long. But where could she go?
The following weeks passed quickly – too quickly, for Helena's taste. She was busy arranging everything for their move to Hilmerton Park – packing her and her brothers' personal belongings, deciding which should go to Hilmerton Park and which should go to Eton, in her brothers' case – writing letters to their various relations and friends announcing their new address, making an inventory of the house and its contents for the use of Mr Barton and the new tenants, and doing all of this without any help from Grace, who was busy being the Lady of the House, but did not want anything to do with the actual work.
Helena did not spend much time with her sister and brother-in-law in those days. She was glad to retire to her room shortly after dinner, writing her diary and then going to bed. Helena was too tired every evening to think of anything but sleep.
Three weeks after her father's funeral, Helena received a letter from her friend Cecilia.
After having expressed her deepest compassion for Helena's current situation, Cecilia Harrington invited Helena to stay with her for a while.
I am certain my husband will be as delighted to have you as our guest as I will be, Cecilia wrote. However, I am afraid that this solution would only be a temporary one, as my husband is planning to go on a journey to Italy in spring. Therefore I am still searching for a better way of keeping you away from your sister's. I suppose a position as a governess is out of the question, for your sister would never allow it. But how about your becoming a respectable lady's companion? Certainly your sister could not have anything against it – she could still keep up pretences and say that you were staying with a friend. Do tell me what you think about it. There is an elderly lady in my acquaintance who would be happy to take you in, should you be interested. I must warn you – Mrs Montagu is not blessed with the happiest of tempers, to say the least – but I would be near you to cheer you up, and I am convinced Mrs Montagu is a good person at heart.
Helena smiled. She did not doubt that Mrs Montagu was a good person at heart, but nevertheless she did not feel like accepting the offer. Paul and Frederick needed her, and for their sake she had to endure life at Hilmerton Park, no matter how gloomy her prospects were.
After lunch, Helena was in the library with her sister, carefully looking for her and her brothers' favourite books to take them with her.
"Honestly, Helena, I do not see any point in this," Lady Woodward said. "I would be ashamed to leave an incomplete library to my tenants. Besides, it will reduce the value of the property."
"How much money does Sir James intend to make?" Helena asked heatedly, before she could stop herself.
"You are being extremely unfair, do you not think so?" Lady Woodward asked. "Sir James will have to keep you and the boys, with his money, since there is hardly any left of my father's, and this is burden for him. Do not blame him for trying to make the burden as light as possible."
A burden. They were a burden. Helena had known this before, of course, but that her sister would actually say so to her face was a bit of a shock.
Suddenly, Cecilia's offer sounded much more appealing than it had been before. Helena decided to write to her friend and ask her to speak to Mrs Montagu on her behalf. Anything would be better than staying at Hilmerton Park with her snobbish sister and smug brother-in-law. She would be a servant in both cases, Helena was aware of that – only, in Mrs Montagu's house she would be paid.
Helena did not say anything more. She took the books and put them back into the shelves where she had taken them from, and left the room. The last she wanted was to "reduce the value of the property" by taking anything more than was entirely hers. Knowing her sister's husband, even that would be too much.
Helena woke up on her first morning in Hilmerton Park with the unpleasant feeling of being trapped. She had arrived there the evening before, and the tenants were to move into Erpingham Hall by the end of the following week. There was no way back.
At least the new tenants of Erpingham Hall were respectable people, and someone Helena could like. She had met them only once, but they seemed to be a pleasant enough couple. That made it a bit easier for Helena to accept that Erpingham Hall was no longer her home. Neither was Hilmerton Park – and it would never be. Helena knew she was not welcome here, even if Grace tried to make her believe that she was.
Slowly, Helena got dressed and made her way downstairs for breakfast. It was nothing to look forward to – her brother-in-law would treat her with ice-cold courtesy, while her sister would act the same way she had always done. Grace had always been too self-centred to notice anything that was going on around her, unless it raised her interest. Helena had never been an interesting part of Grace's life.
Carter, Sir James's butler, greeted Helena respectfully and opened the door to the breakfast room for her. To her great relief, she found the table still empty. Perhaps, if she hurried up, she would manage to get out of the house and go for a walk before her ladyship vouchsafed to rise from her resting place, Helena thought. She had not yet helped herself to some bacon, however, when the door opened and Sir James entered the room, dressed in his riding clothes as he intended to go on one of his usual tours of the grounds immediately after breakfast.
"Ah, you are up. Good morning," he said curtly, and sat down at the table.
Helena answered his greeting politely and took her seat on the opposite side of the table. The table was not large enough, though – there was not sufficient space between her and Sir James, in Helena's opinion.
"Is everything satisfactory," Sir John asked, without much interest in his voice.
"Oh yes, thank you very much, sir," Helena answered. As if she would not rather bite her tongue off than mention any wishes in Sir James's presence.
"Fine," he said. "My wife will be down shortly, or so she said. She will require your help later in the morning, if you can spare the time." His tone suggested that she'd better be able to do so.
"Certainly," Helena said, coldly. "All she will have to do is ask."
Sir James nodded, and started to go through the letters Carter had brought in. "Here is a letter for you," he said, but did not rise to bring it to Helena. Instead, she had to get up from her chair in order to fetch her letter. It was from Cecilia. Helena decided not to read it yet – she did not like her brother-in-law's scrutinizing look on her.
A few minutes later, Grace joined them and asked Helena to help her with arranging the flowers in the various vases in the house.
"I remember you always did this so nicely at home, Helena," she said. "And after that I wanted to ask you to oversee the housemaids – they have orders to polish the silver, and I had rather have someone around them. I am not suggesting that any of my staff are prone to stealing, but I do think one is well advised to prevent temptation."
Helena had already been wondering how long it would take until her sister would start treating her like her housekeeper. There was the answer – on her very first morning in Hilmerton Park. Helena longed to open Cecy's letter to see what she had to say, especially in the case of Mrs Montagu. If she was to be treated like a servant, Helena preferred really being one.
Her chance to open her letter did not come until the evening. Grace kept Helena busy all day – after overseeing the housemaids cleaning the silver, Helena had had to speak to the gardener about some new rosebeds for her sister, and she had had to go to the village in order to purchase some desperately needed ribbons for her.
Helena sat down at her dressing table and opened the letter. Cecy had spoken to Mrs Montagu, and had given her all the particulars of Helena's situation. It seemed that Mrs Montagu would be willing to employ Helena as her companion, provided that Helena applied as soon as possible.
Mrs Montagu is not interested in making any unwelcome offers, Cecy wrote. But she has promised to treat your application favourably, should you be interested in coming to live with her. As I have told you, Mrs Montagu is not a very patient person, so if you want to come and stay with her, you should write to her as quickly as possible. She likes having things her own way, as many people of her age do, and she can be rather acid and unfriendly, but this is only her façade. In fact, she can also be very kind and thoughtful, and a valuable friend to anyone who cares to be friends with her. I would not have suggested this, had I had any doubt that you could be content with your position in Mrs Montagu's house. It does take some time to get used to her temper, but once one is better acquainted with her ways, I imagine her quite easy to live with.
Helena sighed. So she had to choose between living with an ill-tempered old lady and living with her own sister, who did not care for her in the least. Besides, there was the problem of her brothers. If she left Hilmerton Park, who was going to look after them? Even if they were to stay there during their holidays, Helena knew what their life would be like – they would be in everybody's way and be treated accordingly. Could she actually quit Hilmerton Park and leave her brothers to the mercy of Sir James and his wife?
The following evening, Helena decided to write to Mrs Montagu. Grace had been treating her like a servant all day, and Helena could not bear it any longer. Anything would be better than this. It took her some time to write the letter, and Helena started over several times until she was satisfied with what she had produced. The next morning, she would send the letter, and then she would wait and see.
For two more weeks, nothing happened, until one day Mrs Montagu's reply to Helena's application arrived. Sir James noticed it as he was going through the post, as every morning.
"A letter for you," he said. "From a Mrs Montagu in Somersetshire. I did not know you had any acquaintance in Somerset."
"Well, yes, I do," Helena said. "Mrs Harrington, for instance."
"And Mrs Montagu, of whom I have never heard a thing," Sir James said.
"Obviously," Helena said, irritably. She did not want to tell Sir James the truth. Not yet. "May I have my letter," she only asked acidly.
"Certainly," Sir James said, handing her the letter and giving her a suspicious look. Before he could ask any more questions, Helena had already left the breakfast room.
"I do not quite like your sister's secretive ways," Sir James said to his wife. "Have you ever heard anything of this Mrs Montagu?"
"I cannot remember," Lady Woodward replied calmly. "Why does this upset you so, my dear?"
"I was just wondering," he said, sourly. "Let us hope your sister is not up to something. I have some serious doubts as to the existence of Mrs Montagu."
"She sent Helena a letter, so she must exist," Lady Woodward said.
"What if Mrs Montagu is some fellow sending your sister letters under a false name?"
Lady Woodward laughed. "I can hardly imagine," she said. "Besides, was it not you who said that no one would be foolish enough to marry her?"
"Do you think a man sending letters pretending someone else's identity actually has marriage in mind?" Sir James asked. "Tonight I will ask your sister to show me the letter. I want to know what this is about."
Helena was sitting in the garden, reading her letter. Mrs Montagu seemed to be a clever woman – she had a perfect way of expressing herself, and apparently knew exactly what she was doing. Her suggestions were clear, as well as her thoughts of what her companion would have to do. There was nothing unreasonable in her letter.
Provided you concede to these terms of employment, Miss Erpingham, I shall be happy to receive you at Newark House by Michaelmas. Should you, by now, have changed your mind and are not in search of a position any more, please let me know immediately.
Helena still hesitated to accept Mrs Montagu's offer. There were her brothers… Before she would send Mrs Montagu her final answer, Helena wanted to ask them. They would be the only ones suffering from her being away from Hilmerton Park, so at least she should ask for their opinions.
Helena went back inside the house and started to write a letter to Paul. She described her situation, although no one would be better acquainted with her circumstances than Paul was, and told him about the opportunity Mrs Montagu had offered her. Then she told him why she hesitated to accept, and frankly asked him what she should do.
If you ask me to stay where I am, dear brother, I will, she finished her letter.
Now the decision lay with Paul, not with her. Whatever he suggested, she would do.
After dinner, she was sitting in the drawing room with her sister and mending the seam of one of her dresses when Sir James joined them and bluntly asked her to show him Mrs Montagu's letter.
"Why do you want to see it," Helena asked cautiously.
"I want to know what your are up to," he said, angrily. "And do not deny that you are planning something, I know that you do."
"Fine," Helena said, with a sigh. "Since you have seen right through me, I guess I must confess the truth. I was going to elope with John Montagu, also known as The Masked Terror of Somerset, and was going to share his sinful life and assist him in his depraved deeds. Considering how things are with our family, I thought some highway robbery might do us good."
The shocked expressions on both her sister and Sir James's faces reminded Helena that neither of them was blessed with a sense of humour. It was the one thing they really had in common.
"I do not think you have a right to see my letters, Sir James," she therefore added, calmly.
"I think I do," Sir James said, furiously. "As long as you live under my roof…"
"Oh, somehow I knew you would mention that," Helena replied. "Yes, I am living under your roof, and had you asked me to show you the letter in a polite way, I might even have done so. But your tone already suggested you accused me of doing something wrong, and I do not see why I deserve such treatment. I am neither your daughter, Sir James, nor your ward. Besides I am old enough for you to trust my judgment."
"So you are not going to tell me what this letter was about?"
"I certainly am going to tell you," Helena said. "As soon as I see fit to do so."
"Helena, dear," Lady Woodward started. "I can see you are upset – but why are you so secretive? Does the letter contain something we should not know? If so, I cannot help but think that your way of handling this situation is extremely improper. We are worried – do not resent this."
Helena sighed. "If you really were worried about me, Grace, I would be the last person to blame you, even though your worries suggest that you do not trust me. But you gave no sign that you were worrying about anyone but yourself. You are afraid my conduct might bring disgrace on your house. You need not worry – I am not going to do anything reprehensible. Now you will just have to believe me until I decide to tell you more."
With these words, she got up and left the room. Sir James, though furious, did not dare to hold her back. Yet, Helena knew that she could not keep the secret for much longer. Only a few more days, until Paul had had time to answer her letter.
Luckily, Paul did not take much time to write his answer. A letter from him arrived only three days after Helena had sent hers, which was rather extraordinary – though an affectionate brother, Paul was not the most reliable of correspondents.
His opinion was clear. I have talked it over with Frederick, and he agrees with me. Though we would be much happier to have you at Hilmerton Park, we have no right to ask you to stay there. Frederick suggested that at this lady's place you might find yourself a rich husband. If you do, find one who likes to have some boys around – someone as unlike Sir James Woodward as possible. I thought you wanted to have my reply as quickly as possible, so I am going to send this letter with the next post. Remember, Helena, whatever you do, we will not blame you.
So she was free to do whatever she wanted, Helena thought, and decided to talk to Grace about Mrs Montagu's offer. Sir James had ignored her for the past few days, probably meaning to punish her for her conduct, while in fact his behaviour had been a treat.
Still smiling at Paul's ideas regarding her marriage, Helena entered her sister's dressing room where she knew she would find her at that time of day. Grace was sitting in front of her large mirror, her lady's maid doing her hair in a new spectacular style.
"What do you think of this," she asked Helena without turning around.
"Very elaborate," Helena answered. Their tastes concerning clothes and hair had never been the same.
"I know, but what does it look like?" Lady Woodward asked.
Since it might be important to have her sister's good will in a moment, Helena said, "It becomes you. – Can you spare a moment? I would like to tell you something."
Lady Woodward dismissed her maid with a wave of her hand, and turned to her sister. "Well?"
"Sir James asked me to show him one of my letters, if you remember," Helena said.
"How could I not remember, Helena? The scene was extremely unpleasant. When did you become so stubborn? This was not your character as I remember it."
"Had Sir James asked me more politely, I would have shown him the letter," Helena said calmly. "I have nothing to hide."
"I do not think Sir James was impolite in any way," Grace said.
Not wishing to quarrel with her sister, Helena continued by producing the letter. "I will show it to you, Grace," she said. "I am certain you will be able to reassure your husband as far as my correspondence is concerned."
Grace took the letter and started to read. "This is out of the question, of course," she said when she reached the part where Mrs Montagu offered Helena a position as her companion.
"Why exactly," Helena asked. "What is wrong with my going to live with a respectable lady?"
"First of all, we do not know the lady. How can you tell she is respectable, I wonder?"
"My friend, Mrs Harrington, would hardly want me to stay with someone who is not, Grace."
"What is wrong with your staying with us, then?" Grace asked. "Are we not respectable enough?"
"I do not wish to be a burden on your husband," Helena said, cautiously.
"Whoever said so?" Grace exclaimed angrily.
"You did," Helena said, dryly. "You pointed out more than once that neither you nor your husband were very happy with this scheme."
"Anyway, you cannot go," Grace said. "What will everyone say? We will be the laughing stock of the neighbourhood!"
"No one would know unless you told them," Helena said. "I do not believe any of your friends have friends in the part of Somersetshire where I am going. You could tell them I was staying with Mrs Harrington – and even if you told them that I was staying with Mrs Montagu, there is no reason for you to reveal what position I am going to take in her house."
"You cannot be serious," Grace answered. "How can you even think of such a thing? I will not let you go to that hideous place!"
"I can hardly imagine that Somerset should be hideous," Helena said. "I have heard people praise its beautiful scenery in the highest terms."
"I will not allow it!"
"There is no way for you to allow me to do anything – or to forbid me anything. I am of age, Grace."
"If you go, Helena, you will not be welcome in this house any more."
"What difference would it make," Helena exclaimed heatedly. "I have never been welcome in this house!"
"Leave," Grace said, with a similar wave of her hand she had given her maid before. "As far as I am concerned, this discussion is over. You know my mind."
Helena nodded, and left her sister's room. She knew her sister's mind – and her own.
Sir James was no more pleased to hear about Helena's plans than his wife, yet his opposition was not as strong as Helena had feared.
Helena therefore posted her letter to Mrs Montagu, telling her that she would arrive at Newark House by Michaelmas. Having done this, Helena started to prepare for her journey immediately. There was not much time left.
The preparations for Helena's journey were finished, and Helena was to leave Hilmerton Park the next day. Neither Grace nor her husband had spoken with her very often in the past weeks – ever since she had informed them of her intention to become an elderly lady's companion, they had stopped favouring her with their conversation. Even though Helena had not cared much for their conversation in the first place, this made her feel more isolated than ever.
Soon after dinner, she retired to her room. The journey would be a long one, and this would be her last chance for sleeping well for several days.
As she left the drawing room, Grace said, coldly, "I have given orders for your breakfast to be served at five o'clock."
"That was very kind of you," Helena answered. "Thank you, Grace."
"I hope you will forgive me for not getting up tomorrow to take my leave," Grace said. "Five o'clock is too early."
"In that case, we will have to take leave now," Helena said. Grace nodded.
"Good luck in Somerset," she said. "Do not forget to write."
Do you mean to say that my letters WILL be welcome in this house, whereas I will not, Helena thought but did not say so.
"I will write as often as I can," she simply said and turned to Sir James. "I wanted to thank you, sir, for showing me so much friendship and hospitality in the past weeks. I really appreciate it."
Sir James did not seem to grasp the sarcasm in Helena's statement. "Do not mention it," he said. "I would do as much for anyone in my family."
"I am very much obliged," Helena continued. "Will I see you tomorrow morning, sir?"
"I am afraid you will not, Miss Erpingham," he answered. "My day is long enough as it is, without my getting up at daybreak to see you off."
"In that case I will bid both of you farewell now," Helena said. "I will write immediately after my arrival in Newark House."
Grace nodded, without much interest. "I hope you will have a pleasant journey," she said placidly, and took up her embroidery as a sign that, as far as she was concerned, the conversation was at an end.
Two days later towards evening, Helena got off the coach at Wells. Mrs Montagu had suggested that Helena should spend her first night in Somerset at Mrs Harrington's house, as she did not want her to travel the countryside after dark. Helena was quite happy with that – this gave her the opportunity to spend the evening with her old friend, whom she had not seen since school days.
The moment she stepped down on the road, a coachman came towards her and asked her whether her name was Erpingham. Helena replied in the affirmative, and the man started loading her trunks into a landau.
"Mr Harrington has sent me to pick you up," he said by way of an explanation, held out his hand and helped Helena to get into the carriage.
"Is it far to Mr Harrington's residence," Helena asked the coachman.
"No, Miss, just half a mile from here," was the coachman's answer. Glad that she would see her friend soon, Helena settled down on her seat and had a close look at her surroundings, as far as this was possible in the continually growing darkness.
After a short drive, they arrived at a large, modern building – the Harringtons' house. The front door opened, and a footman came to carry Helena's trunks into the house. Close behind him followed Cecilia Harrington, her arms outstretched to receive her friend.
"Thank God you are here," she exclaimed, embracing Helena. "I was so worried that something might happen to you! My husband has been laughing at me all day."
"Miss Erpingham will get a bad impression of me if you continue to tell her such stories about me," a dry male voice said in the background. "I was not laughing at your worries, I was simply amused by your suggestions of what might happen – I am still marvelling at your imaginative spirit."
Helena looked at her friend's husband. She had never seen him before and had been curious to meet him. Mr Harrington was not very handsome, but there was something very agreeable about him. There was a humorous twinkle in his eyes that made Helena like him immediately.
"Are you not going to introduce me, my dear?" he asked his wife with a smile.
"Of course I will, as soon as you will allow me to get a word in edgewise," Cecilia answered. "Helena, I would like to present my husband, Mr William Harrington."
"I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, sir," Helena said smilingly.
"Not half as pleased as I am, I am sure," Mr Harrington answered. "I do hope you had a pleasant journey, Miss Erpingham."
"Pleasant, but exhausting," Helena answered.
"In that case, we should not keep you standing outside for any longer," Cecilia said. "Do come inside! It is getting rather chilly out here, and I do not want you to catch a cold."
The Harringtons led Helena into a large, tastefully furnished drawing room. True, the furnishings were not quite as expensive as the ones Grace had in Hilmerton Park, but the whole atmosphere made the room much cosier than any in Lady Woodward's home.
Mr Harrington soon left them to themselves, saying that he had some work to do and would meet them again at dinner.
"You have not dined yet," Helena asked Cecy.
"No, we always dine late," Cecy answered. "My husband prefers late dinners – he says finishing work before dinner is much more satisfactory. Managing such a large estate must be rather boring, I think."
"I think it is not," Helena said. "Mr Harrington must be a very busy man. You said you were going to travel to Italy next spring?"
"Yes, my husband has been planning to do so for a very long time. He wants to show me all the beautiful places he saw on his tour of Italy some years ago."
"This must be wonderful," Helena said wistfully. To share the beauties of Italy with someone she loved … this would be one of the many things she would never experience.
Cecy looked at her earnestly and said, "You will have a good husband yourself one day, Helena. Do not give up hope."
"Whoever would marry me, Cecy?" Helena asked, with a touch of hopelessness in her voice.
"Someone who really loves you will not care whether you have money – and there are dozens of reasons for a man to fall in love with you," Cecy answered determinedly. "I would not want you to have a husband who does not really love you. You deserve better than that."
The next day, Helena got up early and prepared for the last part of her journey. Cecy had promised to accompany her and introduce her to Mrs Montagu.
Too bad she could not stay with the Harringtons for longer, she thought. Cecy had been as close to her as in the old days at school, and Mr Harrington had been the most considerate host one could imagine. Helena believed that she could be very happy staying with the Harringtons, but it was not to be. Hopefully she would have the chance to visit them now and then while they were still there – they were to start their journey to Italy in March, so there were nearly six months left until their departure.
After breakfast the carriage was ready, and Helena had to take leave of Mr Harrington. She did so most unwillingly. Even though she had only just made his acquaintance, they had become good friends.
"I hope to see you here more often now that you are settled in the neighbourhood, Miss Erpingham," he said as he assisted her in getting into the carriage. "My wife has been very happy to be with you. I believe she has missed the old days very much."
"I will try to come here as often as I can," Helena said, with a smile. "But Mrs Montagu will take up most of my time, naturally."
"Of course, Miss Erpingham. Good luck at Newark House."
"Thank you very much for your hospitality, sir," Helena said. This time, there was no sarcasm in her tone. Why could her own family not be like the Harringtons, she thought. She would not have to go and be an ill-tempered old lady's companion if they were.
During their trip to Newark House, Cecy told Helena everything she knew about Mrs Montagu. Mrs Montagu was a rich widow in her late sixties, who had been living alone since her husband's death ten years before. She had been married for nearly forty years, but, according to rumours in the neighbourhood, had not been very happy in her marriage.
About two years after Mr Montagu's decease, Mrs Montagu's niece had moved in with her aunt, but had left her several months ago to get married.
"No one would have thought that Miss Davies might find a husband," Cecy said. "She was nearly thirty and, if you ask me, not much of a beauty. She went to Bath to visit her brother, and the next thing we heard was that she was married. Mrs Montagu was furious."
"But why? She should have been happy for her niece to have found herself a husband," Helena said.
"Not Mrs Montagu," Cecy replied. "She said her niece was foolish to fall for a man's promises. As I told you, Mrs Montagu was not very happy in her own marriage, and so she does not really approve of matrimony. She calls it an institution worse than any prison."
"Which is not much of a compliment for Mr Montagu, I am sure," Helena said dryly. She became more curious to meet her employer – Mrs Montagu seemed to be an interesting character.
The following minutes, Helena spent looking at the beautiful countryside surrounding them. The morning mist was gone, and everything looked sparklingly fresh in the autumn sun. The trees and hedgerows were already changing the colours of their leaves, and the air was crisp and clear, as always on autumn mornings.
"We will soon reach the grounds of Newark House," Cecy finally said. "And if you look to the left, you can see the house in the distance."
Helena turned to look at the house. It was a stone building, older than Erpingham Hall, but not as big. The adjoining grounds looked as if they were well taken care of – there was a large formal garden surrounding the house, and the lawn sloped down the hill until it reached the boundaries of a large orchard.
"What do you think of it," Cecy asked.
"It is beautiful," Helena answered.
They arrived at the portal of the house some minutes later. An ancient butler opened the door, and informed them that Mrs Montagu was already expecting their arrival in the morning room. He led them to a large, airy room, where Mrs Montagu was seated in an easy chair facing the door.
"Mrs Harrington and Miss Erpingham," the butler announced and left the room. Helena gave Mrs Montagu a close look. She was a petite woman, and had undoubtedly been a stunning beauty in her youth. Even though her face was wrinkled and her hair was white, she still looked beautiful. Her eyes were dark and their gaze was sharp – there was hardly anything that could escape her attention, Helena thought.
"Good morning," Mrs Montagu said and rose, supported by an ebony cane. Her voice was an interesting contrast to her appearance – it was a rich, full voice that seemed to belong to a much weightier person.
Cecy introduced her friend, and Helena curtseyed.
"You have had a pleasant journey, I trust," Mrs Montagu said.
"Very pleasant, thank you, Madam," Helena said.
"Would you be so kind to ring the bell? The pull is over there." Mrs Montagu said. "And then take a seat. You will want some tea, won't you? I know I do."
Helena went over to the fireplace and rang the bell. Then she took a seat on the sofa facing the French window. In looking out she recognised the formal garden she had seen before. In the centre of the garden there was a sundial, and several statues were placed on both sides of the lawn.
A maidservant arrived, carrying a tray and placing it on the table. Mrs Montagu poured some tea into the cups and handed them to her guests.
"You may have wondered why I was looking for a companion, Miss Erpingham," she said. "You must know that until recently, my niece was staying with me. Unfortunately she has left me to get married."
"She must be very happy," Helena said politely.
"I do not hold with such nonsense," Mrs Montagu said sharply. "I was married for nearly forty years – nearly forty years of constant fighting. The day my husband died my real life began. I may be old and lonely now, but at least I am free to do what I want. As for my husband – as long as he was alive, I had to worry where he was, and with whom he was. Now I can be quite certain in that respect. Such a relief, I can tell you."
Mrs Montagu leant back in the easy chair, her eyes still flashing dangerously.
"There are happy marriages," Helena said.
"Oh yes, they are all happy. At the beginning. Why did you leave your sister's home, Miss Erpingham?"
"I did not really get along with my brother-in-law," Helena said. "He gave me the impression I was not welcome in his house."
"The Lord has not intended love between brothers and sisters-in-law," Mrs Montagu said. "I could tell you some stories myself. No doubt you will be better off here. – It was very kind of you to bring Miss Erpingham here, Mrs Harrington, thank you very much. You will be needed at home, certainly."
Mrs Montagu's tone did not weaken the dismissal, but Cecy did not seem to resent it.
"I have plenty of things to do, Mrs Montagu," she answered good-naturedly. "Do take good care of my friend, Mrs Montagu, and I hope you will allow her to visit me now and then."
"I will allow her to do so whenever I can spare her," Mrs Montagu said. This did not bode well, Helena thought.
After Cecy had left, Mrs Montagu sent for the housekeeper and told her to show Helena her room. It was on the second floor of the house, the windows overlooking the driveway. The furnishings were simple, but comfortable. Helena's luggage had already been brought there, and with a sigh Helena began to unpack her belongings. As soon as she had finished, she went back to Mrs Montagu.
"Do you like your room," Mrs Montagu asked brusquely. Helena said that she did, and thanked her.
"Mrs Harrington has told me much about your family history, Miss Erpingham, so you need not repeat it to me. She told me that Erpingham Hall is situated in Buckinghamshire. Where exactly?"
"On the Thames, Madam, near Marlow."
"Conveniently situated then if one cares for visits to London. Very beautiful area, I have heard." Mrs Montagu said.
"True, Mrs Montague. It is very beautiful."
"And your sister is also settled in Buckinghamshire?"
"Yes, she is. Hilmerton Park is only a few miles from my home."
"Do you play Whist," Mrs Montagu asked, abruptly changing the topic.
"I do," Helena replied. "Along with other card games. My father preferred playing cards to every other amusement."
"Unfortunately," Mrs Montagu said disapprovingly. "Unfortunate for him, I mean, but very fortunate for me. My eyes are not getting better, and playing cards is one of the few amusements I can still indulge in without having to count on someone else's help. Some of my neighbours come here every Thursday evening – we are a dull set, I must say, but I do not mind. It passes the time to sit, talk and play cards. I do want you to read to me every day, however – I have always been very fond of reading, but lately I had to give it up. My eyesight has become too bad for reading much.
– You will find out, Miss Erpingham, that my schedule is very regular, and that there is hardly any variety in my life. I get up at eight o'clock every morning, and start on my journey to Wells at nine. In town, I make my purchases and collect my post. I do not trust anyone else with my letters, you must know. Then I come back here, make all the necessary arrangements with my housekeeper, and have dinner. On Thursdays, my neighbours join me to dine with me, and on Saturdays and Sundays I go to church in the nearby village. As I said, very regular, and rather dull for a young person. I am too old for an exciting life."
Helena assured Mrs Montagu that she had no objection to leading a quiet life in the country. Especially now, so soon after her father's demise, she had no taste for balls or other amusements.
"In that case, Miss Erpingham, I have no doubt that we will get along famously," Mrs Montagu said, and left her to dress for dinner.
Helena had her doubts, however – yet she would try her best to be happy in Newark House. She did not have much choice. Either she could stay with Mrs Montagu, or she would have to write her uncle in America. Going back to Hilmerton Park was impossible.
The following weeks were busy, but rather uneventful. Mrs Montagu kept strictly to her schedule, and once Helena had got used to it, she dealt with her situation very well. Mrs Montagu was not a bad employer, she was tolerant to a certain degree, and allowed her to roam the surroundings of the house freely whenever she had no use for her.
Often she took Helena with her on her drive into Wells, and allowed her to call on Cecy while she was settling her business there. In the evenings, Helena usually read to Mrs Montagu for an hour and was then allowed to do whatever she chose. Luckily, Mrs Montagu had good taste in the choice of her books, so the reading did not pall.
On Thursday evenings, Mrs Montagu received her neighbours to dine with her, among them the neighbouring village's vicar, a Mr Grimsby, and his wife, and an elderly gentleman who had once served in the army with Mrs Montagu's husband. There were no young people in the circle, and although Helena enjoyed listening to Mrs Grimsby and Mrs Montagu's conversations, she sometimes missed talking to people of her own age.
On the whole, Mrs Montagu was an agreeable employer – she had given Helena an accurate description of what she expected her to do, and never asked for anything else. There was only one serious problem – whenever Mrs Montagu had made up her mind to do something, it was practically impossible to keep her from doing it, however unreasonable it was. Even if circumstances were extremely untoward, she stuck to her plans. Helena believed that her obstinacy was one of the results of old age.
It was one particularly unpleasant morning in early November – it had been raining all night, and it was chilly outside. The thought of going to Wells in such weather was not very tempting – yet Mrs Montagu, having planned this outing, decided that she would go, disregarding the pouring rain.
"There is no reason why I should not go," Mrs Montagu said when Helena pointed out that the journey would not be very agreeable in such conditions. "You need not come with me, if you do not want to, but I shall go."
Knowing that nothing would change Mrs Montagu's mind, Helena got into the carriage with her. When they arrived in Wells, it had become stormy and the wind rendered their umbrellas quite useless. Before they had entered the first shop on Mrs Montagu's list, they were already drenched. Again, Mrs Montagu did not listen to Helena's entreaties to be more careful, and continued her shopping. When they finally came back to Newark House, they were both wet and cold.
"You had better change your clothes immediately," Mrs Montagu said to Helena. "I do not want you to catch a cold."
Helena smiled. "The same thing applies to you, Madam," she said. "A cold would be much more dangerous to you than it would be to me."
"Nonsense. I have never been ill in all my life, and I do not have the intention of starting that habit now," Mrs Montagu said determinedly. "I am going to change, however."
After dinner, they were sitting in the drawing room and Helena was reading to Mrs Montagu, when suddenly Mrs Montagu told her to stop reading and asked her to fetch a shawl from her room.
"It is rather cold in here, is it not?" she asked. "Remind me of talking to Jenkins tomorrow. There is no need to be so sparing with firewood. There is plenty in the sheds."
Helena did not answer. In her opinion, the room was nice and warm. She believed that Mrs Montagu had caught a cold, but was too cautious to hint at it. Instead, she got up and fetched Mrs Montagu's shawl. The next morning, Mrs Montagu was late for breakfast, and she looked very ill.
"Are you unwell, Mrs Montagu," Helena asked her.
"Nonsense. There are worse things than a bit of a headache and a runny nose," Mrs Montagu said. "It will be gone tomorrow."
It did not escape Helena's notice that this evening, Mrs Montagu went to bed earlier than usual. The next day, she did not turn up for breakfast, and Helena decided to go and have a look what might have detained her. She found Mrs Montagu still in bed, and not at all well.
"Shall I send for a doctor, Mrs Montagu," she asked. Mrs Montagu denied vehemently that she was ill – or in need of a doctor. "I will just stay in bed today," she said. "This will be gone tomorrow. The doctor has some real work to do, there is no need for him here."
"Very well, Madam," Helena said. "But let me know when you change your mind, and I shall send for the doctor immediately."
In the afternoon, Helena went to read to Mrs Montagu, and noticed that her state had become worse. After having finished her reading, she went to the housekeeper's room and asked her what to do.
"I am quite certain a physician should see Mrs Montagu, but she has told me not to send for one," she said. "What shall I do? I cannot take the responsibility for Mrs Montagu's well-being, in such circumstances."
"Send for a doctor, then," the housekeeper said. "I have known Mrs Montagu for years. Believe me, she will grumble, but in the end she will be glad you got the doctor here."
"Are you certain?" Helena asked. She did not want to risk anything.
"I shall take it on my head," the housekeeper said resolutely. "You send for the doctor, and tell Mrs Montagu I did." Helena drew herself up to full height.
"There is no need to lie to Mrs Montagu," she said firmly. "Will you please send someone to Mrs Montagu's doctor and ask him to come here as soon as possible?"
Mr Dixon had been Mr Montagu's physician for decades, and so he had been sent for. He stayed in Mrs Montagu's room for half an hour, and then joined Helena in the drawing room, where she offered him some tea.
"Will Mrs Montagu get better soon," Helena asked him while pouring some milk into her tea.
"That depends on whether she will listen to my advice or not," Mr Dixon replied, smiling. "As you may have found out already, Mrs Montagu can be quite stubborn. She told me three times that she was not ill. Despite the evidence pointing into the opposite direction."
"Do you think I was right sending for you, then?" Helena asked.
"You certainly were, and so I have told Mrs Montagu. Do not worry, Miss Erpingham, I do not think she resents your taking action."
"I am glad to hear it," Helena said. "What can I do to make Mrs Montagu more comfortable, sir?"
"Keep her in her bed," Mr Dixon said. "That will be hard enough, believe me."
Mr Dixon turned out to be perfectly right. It was hard to make Mrs Montagu keep to her bed. Three days after the doctor's visit, she was up and about again – with the consequence that she suffered a serious relapse.
This time, she had no choice but to stay in bed, and she stayed there for two entire weeks. Mr Dixon came to see her twice a day, and said that only with a great deal of luck he had been able to prevent a more serious illness.
"You are not five-and-twenty any more, Mrs Montagu," he said strictly. "So, if you want your relatives to prepare their funeral garb, just get up and walk about a bit more. If you should, by any chance, wish to remain among them for a bit longer however, you will do as I tell you."
Slowly, Mrs Montagu was on the mend. After three weeks, she was able to leave her room for the first time. As Mr Dixon came to call on her, she rose from her chair shakily and said, with a triumphant smile, "Did you get your funeral garb ready, Mr Dixon?"
Mr Dixon laughed good-naturedly. "I did not, Mrs Montagu," he said. "I knew you were clever enough to know when to take my advice seriously. You do look very well, considering the circumstances."
Mrs Montagu sat down again. Even though she tried to appear fresh and strong, she did not manage to fool anybody. Both Helena and Mr Dixon knew how weak she really was.
Then Mr Dixon made a suggestion. "Mrs Montagu, this illness has cost you a great deal of your strength, if I may say so, and you ought to take every measure to recover it."
Mrs Montagu gave him a suspicious look. "What exactly do you mean, Mr Dixon?"
"I think you should spend some weeks in Bath, under the care of one of the excellent physicians there. There is someone I can particularly recommend. He is still rather young, but among the best. A Mr Thomas Carmichael."
"I have heard of him," Mrs Montagu said. "He is my nephew's family doctor, and, as far as I know, one of his best friends."
"Even better!" Mr Dixon exclaimed. "Mr Carmichael has so many patients that he can pick and choose among the new arrivals in town, but if he is acquainted with your nephew, I am certain he will treat you with particular deference."
"I do not want to go to Bath," Mrs Montagu protested. "I have always disliked the place. Nothing but stupid young things hunting for gouty old fools with a large fortune. You know the sort of men – those who think that a young wife makes them young again. I have no desire to watch their proceedings in the Pump Room – or anywhere else, for that matter. Men will be fools everywhere, but let them be fools without my having to witness it."
Helena cleared her throat and got up from her seat. "I think I had better let you discuss this matter in private," she said. "If you will excuse me…"
"You see, Mr Dixon, I have insulted Miss Erpingham's delicate feelings – she is a romantic, like most young ladies without an idea of life. Do not worry, Miss Erpingham, you will see my point. If not now, just wait a few years." She gave Helena a nod, indicating that Helena was allowed to leave the room. Mr Dixon stayed for another hour, and Helena was glad she did not have to be present during the entire discussion. When he left, however, he gave her a friendly smile and said, "Miss Erpingham, you are soon going to leave Newark House to go to a much livelier place. I hope you will enjoy yourself in Bath."
"Mrs Montagu has decided to go there, then? Amazing – after all, she was strongly against it at first."
Mr Dixon laughed. "I know people like Mrs Montagu," he said. "All I had to do was point out that no one really wanted her in Bath – that was reason enough for her to change her mind."
That evening Mrs Montagu confirmed what Mr Dixon had already told Helena. She was going to stay at Newark House for another two weeks and would start her journey to Bath in the second week of December – provided the weather was fine enough for travelling then.
She told Helena that she had already written to her nephew, announcing her visit in Bath.
"He has invited me so often, he will not mind my finally deciding to accept one of his invitations."
Helena doubted it – had not Mr Dixon said that "no one really wanted Mrs Montagu in Bath"? But then it was very likely that Mr Dixon was not acquainted with Mrs Montagu's nephew.
"My nephew is a good sort," Mrs Montagu said, and for a moment her voice sounded wistful. "He and his sister were the nearest thing I ever had to children of my own. They came here to visit several times when they were children, and my niece stayed with me for years. She only left when she got married. I blame her brother – he introduced her to her husband.
They have got another brother, John, the eldest, who has inherited my family's home in Wiltshire. I have not seen him for years, but I suppose he is doing well. Philip, my younger nephew, settled in Bath when he married, and still lives there. So does Emma, my niece. You will meet her and her husband quite often, I am afraid. Emma's husband is a bore – honestly, I can see no reason for her to have married him. This is why I do not want to stay with them – I cannot stand Mr Howard, no matter how hard I try."
Helena suspected that Mr Howard's having married Mrs Montagu's niece and taken her away from her aunt was the prime reason for Mrs Montagu's aversion to him, but she did not say so.
They spent the rest of the evening peacefully, Helena reading to Mrs Montagu and then going to bed.
Bath…she had never been in Bath before. She had been in London a couple of times, but had not really enjoyed it there. Why some people could not live without their London Season was far beyond Helena's understanding. Perhaps Bath was more pleasant – it was smaller, but it had a great deal of amusement to offer. Even though Helena was not yet ready to attend a ball, she would not mind going to the theatre or to concerts. With pleasant dreams of Bath, she finally fell asleep.
"Sir, can I speak to you for a moment," Mrs Doyle, the housekeeper, asked on entering the study.
Philip Davies leant back in his chair and said, "May I guess? It is about my son."
"It is about Master Jeremy, yes, sir."
Philip sighed. "What has he done this time, Mrs Doyle?"
"He has treated my poor little kitten with such cruelty…" Mrs Doyle began. Philip somehow managed not to grin. Mrs Doyle's poor little kitten was a fully grown tomcat, older than Jeremy, and the entire dog population of Bath lived in constant dread of him. Whenever Mephisto came around the corner, one could see a couple of yelping dogs either seeking cover or pretending to be dead. The poor little kitten had more than lived up to his name. However, if Jeremy had managed to be cruel to such an incarnation of evil as Mephisto was and was still in possession of all his limbs, action had to be taken. One Devil's incarnate in the household was enough.
Philip patiently listened to Mrs Doyle's story, at times shaking his head in disapproval, and finally promising to "have a word with his son".
"I hope so, sir," Mrs Doyle said, indignantly. "I could not stay in a household where cruelty to animals is tolerated." Then she left Philip's study, leaving him to devise some punishment for his son.
One had to hand it to Jeremy; he never did anything that his father had expressly forbidden him to do. The problem was that even though Philip knew his son inside and out, not even he was able to fathom Jeremy's capacity of mischief – so either he forbade the boy to leave his room except in cases of fire or flooding, or he put up with Jeremy's occasional outbursts of creativity.
These were the problems of a single father, Philip thought, and wondered how others might deal with those. He wondered if it was his fault, whether he did not give Jeremy enough attention and his misbehaviour was nothing but an attempt at raising his father's interest – or whether he was simply too indulgent, so the boy believed to be able to get away with anything.
Philip rose from his chair and went to Jeremy's room. He opened the door to the nursery and found him sitting at the table with Emily Hunter, the nursery-maid, having his dinner. He did not seem to be surprised to have his father for a visit. It happened, occasionally – especially when Jeremy had played one of his tricks.
"Good evening, Father," he said, calmly. Philip paused for a moment to look at the boy. Jeremy's likeness to his mother was amazing – the same flaxen hair, the same blue eyes, and even his mannerisms were alike, sometimes. "Do you want to join us," Jeremy said. "Emily can go and get another plate if you want to." The boy sounded older than his eight years.
"No, thank you," Philip said. "I am going to dine with Mr Carmichael later. Mrs Doyle has just been to see me. Can you imagine what she wanted?"
Jeremy sighed. "I did not mean to hurt the cat, father," he said. "It just happened."
How nicely put, Philip thought. "I do not believe you meant to hurt the cat," he said. "But what I really want to know, Jeremy, is, how did you get the idea to smear the poor animal with mustard in the first place? For Heaven's sake, it is not a usual thing to do, is it?"
"The mustard was handy," Jeremy said, in a matter-of-fact tone. Of course. That explained everything – or was supposed to at least. Jeremy looked at his father leaning in the doorway, giving him one of his special looks. The one with the raised eyebrow.
"I was having luncheon at the time," Jeremy continued by way of an explanation.
"Had you been having your dinner, Jeremy, what would you have used then?"
"I do not know," Jeremy said. "Gravy, maybe?"
"Mephisto would certainly have preferred that," Philip said dryly. "What was the purpose of the mustard, Jeremy?"
"You know the way Mephisto sits there when he is cleaning himself?" Jeremy asked. "Sitting on his hind legs, with his front paws sticking out like that…" He demonstrated what he meant. "I think that is so droll, you know. I just wanted to see him do it. Really, I did not mean to harm him."
No wonder the cat had gone berserk, Philip thought.
"And I am really sorry about that vase," Jeremy went on.
"What vase?" Philip stared at his son in surprise. No one had mentioned a vase, until now.
"You mean Mrs Doyle did not tell you about the vase?" Jeremy asked, cautiously.
"No, but you are going to tell me. Now."
"The Chinese one in the dining room," Jeremy said, quietly. "It is broken – Mephisto literally went up the wall, and knocked it over."
The Chinese vase in the dining room was, thank God, not really Chinese, but an imitation, and not even a very good one, Philip thought. The only reason for its being there had been the fact that it had been a wedding present from Louisa's aunt, and Louisa had been quite fond of it. Now it was gone – well, it could not be helped. Hopefully Aunt Constable would not notice, should she ever come for a visit. Coming to think of it, hopefully Aunt Constable would never come for a visit.
"Now, listen, Jeremy," Philip said sternly. "First of all, I want you to apologize for what you have done. You will go to Mrs Doyle and tell her how sorry you are. Secondly, you will write I must not be cruel to animals - two hundred times." Jeremy groaned.
"Make that three hundred, and if I hear one more complaint it will be five hundred," Philip said. "Thirdly, and I hope I will not have to remind you of this, Jeremy, you will stay away from the cat – do not even think of repeating the trick with gravy, honey, jam or whatever, do you hear?"
"Fine. You know, Jeremy, I would really appreciate it if you could, just for a day or two, behave yourself," Philip said.
"I shall try," Jeremy said quietly.
Philip left his son's room, hoping that Jeremy had not noticed his grin. Back in his study, he began to laugh. "The mustard was handy," he repeated his son's argument.
One thing was certain – Jeremy did make his life interesting.
"The boy needs a mother," Thomas Carmichael said when Philip told him the story.
"How good of you to remind me," Philip answered bitterly. He did not have many weak spots, but this was one of them. It was not kind of Carmichael to dwell on this particular topic.
"You know what I mean," Carmichael said. "For Heaven's sake, Davies, eight years have gone by."
"I do not care how much time has passed since Louisa died," Philip said. "I still miss her - I cannot go on as if nothing had happened."
Carmichael sighed. He believed that his friend's attitude was unhealthy. Instead of moving on, he still lived in the past, firmly holding on to it. This was not only his opinion, but also Mrs Howard's. Ever since she had been married, she had tried to introduce her brother to eligible young ladies, hoping that he might find someone to take the late Mrs Davies's place. So far, she had not been very successful.
"When will Jeremy be going to school," Carmichael asked, to change the subject.
"At the end of next year," Philip answered. "It will get rather lonely then, I am afraid. One reason for me to wish he could stay. What am I going to do with my time, once I need not admonish him every half hour?"
"Buy yourself a couple of dogs," Carmichael answered, smiling. "Or get married."
"Carmichael," Philip said, in a threatening tone. "How much did my sister pay you to say this?"
"Nothing. Which is amazing – after all my advice is worth my weight in gold." Carmichael grinned.
"Do you get your weight in gold for every piece of advice you give," Philip asked.
"I wish," Carmichael said. "But not everyone takes my advice, unfortunately."
"You will have to work harder to make a home for Miss Mackay, then. How is she? May I ask?"
"Of course you may," Carmichael said. "She will come to Bath in January – with her family. If everything goes well, we will be married next spring."
Carmichael had been engaged to be married for four years. The only reason why he was not married already had been his eagerness to establish a really comfortable home for his future wife. Lately, he had bought a house in George Street, and all he was waiting for now was for Miss Mackay to furnish it according to her taste. In the meantime, he remained in his lodgings in Milsom Street, waiting for the Mackays' arrival and working hard to ensure a sufficient income to support his family. Philip envied him. Carmichael had everything before him – a wife, and a family. For him, all this had ended eight years ago, when, within a few hours, his son had been born – and his wife had died.
When the post arrived the next morning, Philip was surprised to find a letter from his aunt Montagu among his correspondence. Aunt Montagu had been most displeased when Emma had married, and had blamed him for his sister's misfortune. Meanwhile everyone, even Aunt Montagu, had to admit that the Howards' marriage was by no means unhappy, but then it was probably impossible to convince Aunt Montagu that there was such a thing as a happy marriage in existence. As it was, this was the first letter from Aunt Montagu since Emma's wedding. Philip opened it, curious to see what had finally moved his relative to forget about her grudge and write to him. He read the letter, and, after having finished doing so, he read it again. No, this was not a nightmare. Mrs Montagu wished to honour Bath – and him – with her visit. Even worse, she meant to stay for eight weeks.
Philip decided to ask his sister for help. Emma had lived with her aunt for years, she knew her ways, and certainly it would not be a problem for the Howards to accommodate Mrs Howard's aunt…
"No," Emma Howard said. "You do not think I would allow Aunt Montagu to stay in Mr Howard's house, after all the dreadful things she has said about him. Even if I did – it would be an insult to my husband."
"But, Emma, what will Aunt Montagu do here?" Philip asked. "There is no one to keep her company in this house – except Jeremy, perhaps, though I am not certain what effect he will have on her nerves. Please, Emma."
Emma shook her head. "She wishes to visit you, Philip. Not me. Had she wanted to come to my place, she would have written to me. Besides, you have invited her more than once."
"Only because I thought she would not come."
Emma laughed. "Your plan went wrong, it seems," she said. "She will come. Now, if you need my assistance in preparing everything for her visit, you are most welcome to have it. But Aunt Montagu will not stay in Henrietta Street. Our house is smaller than yours, Philip."
Philip sighed. "It cannot be helped, then," he said. "But do count on many invitations to dine with us while she is here. I need someone to take care of her."
"I thought she was going to bring her companion?" Emma asked. "Besides Aunt Montagu has a large acquaintance in Bath. There is no need for you to be there for her all the time. Just get a room ready for her, and everything will be fine. On the whole, Aunt Montagu does not require much. Oh, you should ask your friend Mr Carmichael to call on her as soon as possible."
Carmichael would be delighted, no doubt. He had enough patients already, without Philip's old aunt.
Philip nodded, and rang for a servant. It was time to inform Mrs Doyle.
It was late afternoon when Helena and Mrs Montagu arrived in Bath. Helena looked out of the carriage window to catch glimpses of the town, and liked what she saw. Elegant buildings with large windows lined the street both on the left and right. Servants were bustling around, each of them pursuing some important business or other. Ladies and gentlemen in fashionable clothes were strolling in the streets, giving Helena the impression that they had nothing to do but to see and be seen.
"If you look out of the window over here," Mrs Montagu remarked, "you can see Pulteney Bridge. We will arrive soon – my nephew resides in Pulteney Street." Helena resisted the temptation to lean out of the window. Certainly she would have ample opportunity to see Pulteney Bridge in the weeks to come.
A few minutes later, the carriage stopped. "Here we are," Mrs Montagu said.
Helena, glad that her journey was at an end, got out of the carriage and had a look round. She loved what she had seen of Bath so far – and even though she had not seen much, Helena believed that Mrs Montagu's nephew lived in one of the most fashionable areas.
The front door of the house opened, and out came a footman, followed by another manservant and two ladies.
"Welcome to Bath," the younger one of them said. "I hope you had a pleasant journey, Aunt."
So this must be Mrs Davies, Helena thought.
"Emma," Mrs Montagu said, stiffly. "I had thought your brother would welcome me here."
"He wanted to do so, Aunt," the lady said, "but he was called away on important business about an hour ago. I am afraid you will have to be content with the welcome I can give you."
At this point, it began to dawn on Helena that, most likely, there was no Mrs Davies – if there had been, she would have received them, not Mr Davies' sister. Mrs Montagu introduced Helena to her niece. Mrs Howard was tall, and rather plain, but she seemed to be very agreeable.
"I am pleased to finally meet the lady who has taken my place in Newark House," she said, giving Helena a friendly smile. "I was afraid that my aunt might get lonely – I am very happy that this is not the case." Then Mrs Howard introduced the other lady to them. It was Mrs Doyle, Mr Davies' housekeeper.
Mrs Doyle led them into the drawing room of the house and told them that she had ordered some refreshment for the travellers.
"There is nothing better than a good cup of tea after a long journey," she said. "And since Mr Davies will not be back before seven o'clock, it may take some time until dinner, so I have taken the liberty of preparing something to eat as well."
Helena's thanks were heartfelt. She had not eaten anything ever since breakfast in Newark House – Mrs Montagu had stopped at an inn halfway between Wells and Bath, but Helena had not felt very hungry at the time, and had eaten nothing.
During their repast, Helena took a closer look at the drawing room. It was large and comfortably furnished. On the walls there were water-colours which had, most likely, been done by an amateur – though, as far as Helena could judge, it had been an extraordinarily gifted one.
In one corner, there was a harp. Mrs Howard noticed Helena's gaze resting on the instrument, and asked, "Do you play the harp, Miss Erpingham?"
Helena smiled. "I have to admit, to my great shame, that I have never managed to learn to play an instrument," she said. "I have got quite a passable voice, but that is about it. Whom does the harp belong to?"
"It used to be my sister-in-law's," Mrs Howard said. "My brother has not had the heart to remove it, so it is still where it was when she was alive."
"I am very sorry to hear that Mrs Davies has passed away," Helena said. "I did not know that – Mrs Montagu has not mentioned anything about it."
"It is not my favourite conversation topic," Mrs Montagu said brusquely. "I decided to let you find out for yourself."
Helena thought of how awkward the situation would have been, had Mr Davies received them instead of his sister. He might have thought her questions impertinent, and her talking about his wife might even have hurt him. Obviously, Mrs Montagu had not considered that possibility, or she would have informed Helena.
"How is the boy," Mrs Montagu inquired.
"Jeremy is well and thriving," Mrs Howard answered, sounding slightly annoyed at Mrs Montagu's referring to her great-nephew as the boy. "And giving his father a great deal of trouble at times, but Philip manages very well on the whole."
"Is Jeremy not at home?" Mrs Montagu wanted to know.
"He is, but his father has strictly forbidden him to leave the room. He nearly frightened his nurse to death yesterday evening, by pretending to be ill. It seems he wanted to avoid his Latin lessons."
Helena smiled. "When it comes to avoiding their lessons, boys can invent the most amazing strategies," she said.
"True, but such behaviour cannot be tolerated," Mrs Howard said. "If one wants young people to have a sense of duty, it is better to teach them while they are still young. Luckily, my brother shares that opinion. With his mother dying at such an early age, we were all afraid that the boy would be spoilt by his father."
"I do not believe affection could spoil a child – no matter how much he gets." Helena said calmly.
"Affection does not, but indulgence does. Some parents do not know the difference between the two," Mrs Howard replied. "I am glad that my brother does."
"So you should be," Mrs Montagu remarked. Having finished her tea, she rose. "I would not mind going to my room now," she announced. "I need some rest – and I need to get ready for dinner."
Helena's room was on the second floor, overlooking the rear entrance to the house. The room was large and airy, and Helena thought it was rather cosy. She would like it here.
Her trunks had been brought up, and Helena began to unpack them.
Suddenly there was a large black cat sitting on the window sill, looking inside and watching Helena. Helena opened the window, but the cat did not go away. Instead it came inside, jumped on the floor and went to the door. As it realised that the door was not open, it turned to Helena and mewed imperiously. Helena laughed. She went to the door and picked up the cat, which the cat did not appreciate at all. It was staring at Helena furiously, and digging its claws into Helena's wrist.
Helena opened the door, and asked the housemaid who was just coming up the stairs, "Whose is this cat, do you know?"
The girl glanced at the cat and said, "This is Mephisto, he belongs to Mrs Doyle. If you let him go, Miss, I am sure he'll find his way back to where he belongs."
Carefully, Helena placed Mephisto on the floor and watched him dash downstairs. In turning around to go back to her room, she realised that the door to one of the front rooms was open, and if her eyes were not deceiving her, there was a small boy looking out of the room. When Helena moved towards the door, the door closed. Helena smiled, and knocked. There was no answer. She knocked again. "Is anybody at home?" she asked.
"I am," she heard a clear voice answer. "But I am not supposed to go outside."
"Do you mind if I come in, then?" Helena said. "I would like to introduce myself."
"Oh, I do not mind at all," the voice replied, and the door opened again. Helena smiled at the fair-haired boy who was looking at her anxiously.
"Good evening," she said. "I am Helena Erpingham, and it seems that we are next-door neighbours."
"No, we are not," the boy answered. "I know the people who live next door."
Helena laughed. "You are right, of course," she said. "But I was referring to the room next to yours. I have come here with Mrs Montagu."
"Oh. I am Jeremy Davies," the boy said and extended his hand, obviously remembering his manners. "I am honoured to make your acquaintance, Miss Erpingham."
They shook hands, and the boy opened the door a bit wider to let Helena come in. "This is a nasty scratch on your hand," he said. "Mephisto?"
"Yes, it was Mephisto. I am afraid he does not like me."
"Mephisto does not like anyone," Jeremy said. "You are in good company. He hates Benson, and he absolutely despises my father."
"What about you? Does he like you?" Helena asked.
"He used to, but not any more. I played a trick on him two weeks ago, and he has not forgiven me yet. He only lets me touch him if I give him kippers in return. He would do anything for kippers, you know."
"I shall remember it," Helena said, smilingly. "Perhaps I can become friends with him after all. I am afraid I will have to leave you now – I need to get ready for dinner."
"Oh," the boy said, looking disappointed.
"I shall call on you tomorrow, if you do not mind," Helena said. "Just like a next-door-neighbour should do. What do you think? Do you want me to come?"
Jeremy nodded fervently. "Oh yes," he said. "Life is so boring up here."
"I shall try to make it less boring for you, then," Helena said, and opened the door. "Meanwhile, have a nice evening – and good night."
"Good night," the boy said, and returned to his writing desk, where a book was waiting for him.
Philip took a deep breath before he entered his house that evening. Hopefully his aunt would be in a good mood – he did not feel up to arguing with her, not tonight.
Benson, his valet, was filling him in on the ladies' arrival while Philip was getting ready for dinner.
Yes, in his opinion Mrs Montagu had looked rather ill, although he could, of course, not judge Mrs Montagu's appearance, not having been acquainted with her, after all. The lady's companion was a Miss Erpingham, and, in Benson's view, quite nice.
"I have not seen much of her," he said, "but Mrs Doyle said she sounded very reasonable, and was an altogether pleasant person."
At least one ray of light, Philip thought. Having to put up with his aunt was bad enough, but if his aunt's companion was a stupid, boring, sour old maid things would be even worse.
When he was ready, there was still some time left until dinner, and Philip decided to go to his study and write some letters. That way, he could spend more time with the ladies later. Not that he really wanted to, but he felt it was his duty, since he had not been there to receive them immediately at their arrival.
Helena believed in first impressions. They did go a long way, no matter what other people might think about it. It was therefore important to her to make a good first impression on her host. Helena was far from deluding herself, and she knew that, even if Mrs Montagu was a welcome guest in his house, this did not necessarily mean that she was, too.
Helena put on her dark blue dress – "wearing black does not mean one is really mourning someone's death. It simply means one wishes to make the impression as if one were mourning", Mrs Montagu had said once. In her opinion, there were other ways to demonstrate one's grief. She would be pleased to see Helena in dark-blue instead of black, but the colour was still dark enough to give Helena the feeling that she was doing what was proper – especially since she did not wear any adornments except her black shawl, and did not bother too much about her hair. A plain, simple hairdo would be sufficient.
Looking at the clock on the mantelpiece in her room, Helena realised that it was about time to go downstairs to the drawing room. In the past weeks, she had found out that Mrs Montagu believed punctuality to be indispensable – at least she expected other people to be punctual, while she was more generous with herself. She hated waiting, but she had no problems at all with other people having to wait for her.
As Helena arrived downstairs, a door opened and out came a gentleman, pausing the moment he saw her.
"Good evening," he said affably. "You must be Mrs Montagu's companion. Miss Erpingham, is that correct?"
"Absolutely," Helena said and smiled. "You must be her nephew. Mr Davies, if I remember correctly."
He laughed. "It seems we have already heard a great deal about each other," he said. "Am I late?"
"No, I do not think so," Helena said.
"Good," he said, with a sigh of relief, opening the drawing room door and inviting Helena to go in. In the darkness of the hallway Helena had not been able to distinguish much of his appearance. Now she gave Mr Davies a close look. He was pleasant-looking and well-dressed. Not dandy-like, but elegant. His hair was short and curly, and darker than his son's, though it was still rather fair.
Not wishing to give him the impression she was staring at him, Helena looked towards the door and said, "As you see, you had no reason to fear you might be late, sir."
Mr Davies smiled. "My aunt has always preferred being the last one to arrive. She does not belong to the sort of people whose arrival should pass unnoticed. – Do you like your room, Miss Erpingham? Do not hesitate to say if you need anything."
"I like my room very much, thank you, sir," Helena replied. It had not escaped her attention that Mr Davies was trying to take in as many details of her appearance as possible – without seeming rude.
"I hope you do not mind being on the second floor," Mr Davies said. "There is only one guest room on the first floor, and my aunt, being an invalid…"
His explanation was interrupted by Mrs Montagu's entrance.
"I am NOT an invalid," she snapped. Mr Davies frowned, but chose to remain silent on the subject.
"Good evening, Aunt," he simply said. "Have you recovered from your long journey?"
"No thanks to you," Mrs Montagu said sharply. "Why did you put me into this tiny guest room when there is a more comfortable room entirely empty? The room your housekeeper gave me is barely larger than a housemaid's."
"I do not quite understand, Aunt," Mr Davies replied. "You have been given the best room in the house. The empty one used to be my wife's, and has remained empty for the last eight years."
"Still waiting for her to come back, are you?" Mrs Montagu asked coldly. Mr Davies winced. Helena gasped. How could Mrs Montagu be so horrible, especially with someone who, according to her description, "was the nearest thing she had to a son"?
With the look of someone who was, with great difficulty, restraining himself and trying to remain polite, Mr Davies rang for a servant and ordered that their dinner was to be served immediately. Politely, he offered Mrs Montagu his arm, and led her to the dining room. Helena followed them, still dumbstruck. What had possessed Mrs Montagu?
It took Philip all evening to recover from his aunt's allusion to Louisa. He spent dinner watching the clock on the mantelpiece, waiting impatiently for the dessert, knowing the ladies would leave him alone after that. Once they had left the dining room, he gave a sigh of relief. This was worse than he had imagined. Aunt Montagu had turned out even more bitter and disagreeable as he had remembered her.
When Benson entered the dining room, Philip asked him to give him a glass of whisky, and ordered him to leave the bottle on the table, as he would help himself to more if he needed it. Benson gave him a worried look, but years of experience as a valet had taught him to keep his mouth shut when his comments were not asked for.
What had driven Aunt Montagu to openly insult him, Philip asked himself. What gave her the right to treat him the way she did? Someone who had openly declared that she intended to celebrate her husband's anniversary of death every year? Her own Independence Day, she had called it. How could she compare her marriage to his?
Philip decided to show his aunt her limits – the sooner the better. One more comment like that, and she would have to endure his opinion, whether she wanted it or not.
At least Miss Erpingham was not the sour old maid he had believed her to be. She would be an agreeable guest, no doubt. There would be no complaining about the smallness of her room – she seemed to be a polite, reasonable young woman. The look of horror on her face when Aunt Montagu had asked him whether he was still waiting for his wife to return…there was still hope for her, if she did not stay with Aunt Montagu for too long. Perhaps Bath would do her good as well. No one as well-mannered and kind – and pretty, Philip added reluctantly – should waste her life attending on an old dragon like Mrs Montagu.
Philip braced himself. He needed to join the ladies in the drawing room. It was his noble mission tonight to save Miss Erpingham from spending the evening all alone with Aunt Montagu – a terrible fate that, in his opinion, had to be prevented.
When the ladies had retired to their rooms, Philip remained alone in the drawing room. The first evening had gone rather well, despite Aunt Montagu's insult earlier on. She had behaved herself after that. Probably she had seen how much she had hurt him – though Philip doubted it. Aunt Montagu caring about other people's feelings would be a novelty.
She did not care for Miss Erpingham's, obviously. Philip wondered whether the poor girl had known what she had got herself into when she had decided to take the position as Mrs. Montagu's companion. Most likely not – or her living conditions before that had been so unendurable that even her living with Mrs. Montagu was an improvement. Which could hardly be – her entire demeanour as well as the way she dressed suggested that Miss Erpingham was from a good and well-to-do family. Unfortunately, Philip had not had the chance to talk to her a great deal – Aunt Montagu had kept her busy all the time.
When he had joined the ladies, Miss Erpingham had been reading to Aunt Montagu, and had continued to do so when Aunt Montagu had told her to. Philip had sat down on the sofa and had listened to her – she had a clear, agreeable voice, and she had been reading very well. When she had finished the chapter, Mrs. Montagu had allowed her to put the book aside, but had almost immediately suggested a game of chess.
Philip had spent the rest of the evening watching Aunt Montagu and Miss Erpingham playing chess. He had found out that Miss Erpingham was far better at the game than Aunt Montagu was, but she had let her win nevertheless. Watching the game had been quite amusing – Miss Erpingham was contemplating every move for some time, her hand hovering over the chessboard, apparently tempted to slaughter Mrs. Montagu, but then making the worst possible move anyway. For a moment, Philip contemplated to offer her his help – at least then, she would have been able to play as she wanted, and he would most willingly have taken the blame for winning the game. It was what Aunt Montagu would have deserved. Yet, somehow he knew that it would have been Miss Erpingham who would have had to suffer, so he decided not to do anything but watch the game quietly.
Before going to bed himself, Philip went upstairs to check on Jeremy. The boy was fast asleep, but, being an uneasy sleeper, he had shaken off his duvet. It was now tangled around his feet, while the rest of Jeremy's body lay uncovered. Philip took the duvet, disentangled it and tucked Jeremy in. The boy sighed contently and curled up, tightly clutching the bedclothes. Philip remained where he was for a while, spellbound, watching over his sleeping son, and then quietly left the room, heading for his own.
On entering the dining room the next morning, Helena found that the post had already arrived – and that, among the letters, there were two for her. One was from Cecilia Harrington, and the other one had been forwarded to her from Hilmerton Park. Grace had not chosen to get into contact with Helena ever since she had left the place, although Helena had written frequently. This letter was not from Grace, either. It was from Uncle Erpingham. This being an extremely rare occasion, Helena opened the letter immediately to see what it was about.
After having expressed his condolences for the loss of her father and regretting that "in those past years we seem to have lost contact", he informed her that he would start his journey to England as soon as possible, to see what he could do for his young relatives. There were "several things he had to settle in England", and meeting his nephews and nieces was one of them.
There was not much news from Cecy, which was not surprising. After all, Helena had met her only the day before yesterday, and she doubted that much could happen in those few hours between their last meeting and Cecy writing this letter. But it was wonderful to see that her friend had not forgotten her, and tried to cheer her up by telling her "what a wonderful place for finding a husband" Bath was. Helena smiled. This sounded as if she had gone to Bath on that sole purpose, and as if Mrs. Montagu had no other object than getting Helena married.
Helena put the letters into her purse and turned her attention to her breakfast. Mrs. Montagu joined her shortly afterwards, informing her that she intended to go to the Pump Room this morning.
"Will not Mr. Carmichael be calling on you, Mrs. Montagu," Helena asked cautiously.
"He will have to wait if he does," Mrs. Montagu snapped. "He cannot expect me to sit around waiting for him all morning."
Helena did not answer. Mrs. Montagu seemed intent on snubbing everyone around her, and, what was worse, she seemed to enjoy herself in doing so. She wished Mr. Davies would be here to show his aunt her limits –she suspected he would be quite capable of this, should he finally decide that enough was enough and throw civility overboard. Worrying how Mr. Carmichael would react on this insult, Helena was about to go upstairs to her room and dress for going out when a servant entered the room and told them that "Mr. Carmichael wanted to call on Mrs. Montagu."
"He will have to wait until I have finished my breakfast," Mrs. Montagu said crossly. "Is my nephew not at home? Can he not entertain Mr. Carmichael until I am ready to receive him?"
The servant replied that Mr. Davies was already with his friend, and that they were waiting for Mrs. Montagu in the drawing room. With an indignant huff Mrs. Montagu turned to Helena.
"We will have to postpone our walk to the Pump Room, it seems," she declared. She emptied her cup of tea and got up. "Let us see whether Mr. Carmichael lives up to his reputation," she said.
They entered the drawing room, where Mr. Davies was sitting with his friend, talking animatedly. The moment they came in, both gentlemen rose and Mr. Davies introduced his friend. Mr. Carmichael was a handsome young man, Helena thought, and there was a certain earnestness about him. He greeted them both respectfully, and then asked Helena and Mr. Davies to leave the room, as he "had rather talked to his new patient alone". Mrs. Montagu told Helena to get ready for going out – they would go on their walk immediately after her consultation with her new physician was finished.
Helena hurried out of the room and was already halfway up the stairs when Mr. Davies told her, with a smile, that there was no need to hurry.
"Carmichael will keep my aunt busy for an hour at least. You need not get ready for going out yet. He is a very thorough man, and he usually takes his time for new patients. "
"But will your aunt wish to take as much time with her new physician?" Helena asked, smilingly.
"That is another question," Mr. Davies retorted, "but we will find out about that. Aunt Montagu will survive it if you do not rush to be of service to her every time. She does not expect you, to, either, even if she behaves as if she did."
Not wishing to discuss Mrs. Montagu’s manners with her nephew – especially not after such short acquaintance – Helena changed the topic and asked Mr. Davies whether he had been long acquainted with Mr. Carmichael.
"Oh yes, we have known each other for ages," Mr. Davies said. "Carmichael and I were at the same college in Oxford."
"You studied in Oxford? So did my father," Helena said.
"That might have been a bit before my days there, however," Mr. Davies said, earnestly.
"I did not mean to imply... "Helena began.
"I know you did not," Mr. Davies answered. "This was just a weak attempt at joking, Miss Erpingham. Do not mark me."
He wished Helena a pleasant morning and went to his study. Helena went upstairs and decided to answer Cecy’s letter while Mrs. Montagu was still busy.
When the ladies had left for their morning walk, Philip and Carmichael sat down in Philip's study to talk.
"How is my aunt," Philip asked his friend. "Is there anything seriously wrong with her?"
Carmichael shook his head. "Not at all," he said. "She seems to have been weakened by that cold she has had, but otherwise she is in an excellent condition, considering her age. There is nothing to worry about."
"Good," Philip said.
"The young lady who is with her – is she a relation of hers," Carmichael asked him.
"No, Miss Erpingham is her companion," Philip answered. "She took my sister's place in Newark House."
"Poor thing." Carmichael said. "How is Jeremy?"
"I have not seen him yet," Philip said, with a smile. "He is keeping to his room. The day before yesterday, he pretended to be sick, and I have told him to stay in his room until he feels better." He gave his friend a grin. "That is, until I allow him to feel better."
Carmichael laughed. "I could have told him he would not succeed," he said. "I used to know his father in university days. There is no trick on earth he does not know."
"Yes, but I am old and grey now."
Carmichael nodded. "At death's door, certainly."
"Have you heard of Miss Mackay lately," Philip asked.
"I have, in fact. Her parents have decided to come to Bath earlier. They will arrive before Christmas."
"You will have to dine with us on Christmas Eve," Philip said. "After all, you cannot leave one of your oldest friends to the mercy of his aunt and her companion at Christmas."
"Not to forget his unruly son," Carmichael said with a wink. "I shall seriously consider it, and I will ask the Mackays whether they want to come along. Sooner or later they will have to meet you, anyway." He rose, announced that he had to see some more patients before luncheon and took his leave.
Philip went upstairs to his son's room. He knocked and entered, finding Jeremy sitting at his writing desk, studying some Latin vocabulary.
On hearing his father's greetings, Jeremy turned around and smiled. "Are you going to help me," he asked.
"What do you want me to do?" Philip asked.
"Can you test me? I am not sure if I know everything by heart, and I'm afraid Mr. Phibbs will be angry if I am unprepared for my lesson again."
He handed Philip the Latin book. "Please?" he said. Philip nodded, and began asking his son the vocabulary he had pointed out. When they had finished, Philip told his son that he had done very well – he had made one or two minor mistakes, but on the whole he had known everything.
"Is Miss Erpingham here," Jeremy suddenly asked.
"Miss Erpingham. Is she here?"
"No, she has gone out with Aunt Montagu. How come you know Miss Erpingham? You have not been out of your room, have you?" Philip said sternly.
"No, I have not. Miss Erpingham came in here," Jeremy answered. "She found Mephisto in her bedroom."
"What was that cat doing in Miss Erpingham's bedroom?"
"I do not know," Jeremy said. "But he always goes into the spare bedrooms if one of the doors happens to be open. He enjoys lying in beds – it must be the eiderdown he likes."
"Most likely," Philip said and got up, tousling his son's hair. "Go on studying," he said. "I have got some work to do. By the way, tonight you may dine with us grown-ups, if you want to."
"Will Miss Erpingham be there, too," Jeremy asked eagerly. Philip laughed.
"I think she will," he said, and left his son to his Latin vocabulary. Miss Erpingham had obviously managed to be friends with Jeremy after only one single meeting. Amazing.
All the world could be met at the Pump Room in Bath, at least this was the impression Helena had when she left it. Mrs. Montagu had encountered several people who were either acquainted with her or had been acquainted with her late husband, and had spent hours talking to them, while there was nothing left to do for Helena but stand next to her, trying not to look too stupid, and waiting until anyone might address her – which no one did. Being Mrs. Montagu's companion had made her invisible. No one talked to her, and no one asked her any questions. Helena felt as if there were no person in the world as unimportant as she.
When they got back to Pulteney Street, Mrs. Montagu allowed her to have some time to herself. Helena went upstairs to her room and found Mephisto, the cat, sitting in the middle of her bed. He did not move until Helena picked him up – then he dug his claws into her arm for a moment to express that he did not at all approve of such treatment. When she started tickling his ears, however, he decided that, for once, he would put up with it.
Carrying the cat, Helena went downstairs to the housekeeper’s parlour to return Mephisto to his owner.
"Oh no," Mrs. Doyle exclaimed when she opened the door to let Helena in. "Has he been in your room? I have been looking for him all morning!"
"He was there, sitting on my bed," Helena replied.
"The maid must have left the door open while making your bed," Mrs. Doyle said. "Mephisto grabs every chance to sneak into one of the bedrooms and hide there until there is no one left to drive him out. Thank you for bringing him back. Do you want a cup of tea, Miss Erpingham?"
Helena accepted the offer gratefully and sat down to have a chat with Mrs. Doyle. She informed her of everything going on in the Davies household – and Helena found out that Mrs. Doyle seemed to relish gossip. The topics varied from Mr. and Mrs. Howard – "an odd couple but they seem to be happy" – to Mr. Carmichael and his fiancée – and finally they arrived at the subject of Mr. Davies and his son.
"I have never seen a man so attached to his son as Mr. Davies is," Mrs. Doyle said. "Which is lucky for both of them – I have heard of similar cases in which men hated their children for causing their mother’s death. But Mr. Davies is different. He is such an affectionate father – unfortunately, Master Jeremy does little to repay his kindness."
"What do you mean, Mrs. Doyle?"
"Master Jeremy makes a great deal of trouble, Miss Erpingham. Between the two of us, if he were my son..." Mrs. Doyle did not go on, but Helena got a general idea what treatment Jeremy would get if he were Mrs. Doyle’s son.
"Boys are a mischievous lot, at times," Helena said quietly. "I know what I am talking about – I have got two younger brothers."
"Two brothers," Mrs. Doyle exclaimed, and they went on talking about Helena’s family. After half an hour, Helena went back to her room to dress for dinner – with an excellent impression of what life was like in the Davies household, and with the intention to further her friendship with Jeremy Davies.
That evening, Helena made the acquaintance of Mr. Howard. Her impression of him was not too favourable. For the first time, she believed Mrs. Montagu to be right in her opinion of someone – Mr. Howard was a bore. From the moment he entered the drawing room in Pulteney Street until the moment he left the house several hours later, he did not utter a word unless someone had asked him something. Even then, his remarks were monosyllabic and not always satisfactory.
There was one occasion, however, when he seemed to make up his mind to speak some more. That was when little Jeremy entered the drawing room and was introduced to Mrs. Montagu. Mr. Howard had heard about Jeremy's latest prank and grabbed the opportunity to tell the boy off and to give him a lecture on the importance of Latin lessons. The speech was not only exceedingly boring, but also unnecessary, in Helena's opinion. The boy had already received his punishment from his father, and no one had the right to punish him any further.
No one had the right to lecture him, either, apart from, perhaps, the tutor concerned in the case.
Helena looked at the poor boy's crestfallen expression and, without saying anything, offered him the biscuit plate by way of a consolation. At the dinner table, Helena was seated between Mr. Howard and Jeremy, who turned out to be the perfect little gentleman and much better company than his uncle. He entertained Helena with stories about himself and Mephisto, his tutor Mr. Phibbs, and his friend, Oliver, who lived in No. 10.
"How old is Oliver," Helena asked the boy. She was glad to hear that Jeremy had a friend who was his own age. He seemed a bit too grown-up for his age – a certain sign that he spent too much time in the company of adults.
"Oliver is nine," Jeremy answered. "We sometimes meet to play, but not very often. Oliver is a bore, you know."
"Jeremy," Mr. Davies, who had overheard the remark, said. "This is not a very kind way of talking about your friend."
"Sorry, Father, but I am only saying the truth," Jeremy defended himself. "He never joins in any interesting games."
"Games that you find interesting are always to be treated with extreme caution," Mr. Davies said. "It is clever of Oliver to have found out about that. You should try to be a bit more like him, instead of laughing at him."
"Yes, Father," Jeremy said and kept quiet for a while. Mr. Howard took the chance to talk to Helena and ask her some questions about her family, which she answered readily.
Apart from that, he contributed nothing at all to Helena's amusement, and she was glad when, finally, the ladies left the dining room. Jeremy was allowed to join them for a few minutes before going to bed.
"Now, Jeremy," Mrs. Montagu said. "You seem to be a bright little fellow. Why are you not at school?"
"My father says I am too young," Jeremy said.
"Too young? Nonsense. How old are you? Ten? Eleven?"
"I am eight, Aunt, going on nine," Jeremy said, quietly.
"You certainly do look older," Mrs. Montagu insisted. She did not like her grandnephew to contradict her.
"So you will be going to school next year," Helena said.
"I think so, yes," Jeremy said. "I am to go to Harrow next September." He sounded very proud of this, and Helena smiled.
"You will certainly do well there," she said. "I do believe you will be an excellent student – and you will find some new friends, of course. Is your friend Oliver going to Harrow, too?"
"No, he has got a private tutor. He cannot go to school. His mother says his health is too delicate. I think he is just too stupid."
"Jeremy," Mrs. Howard exclaimed. "Do not talk about your friend like this! Your father told you so before."
"But this is what I think," Jeremy insisted. "Oliver is not at all ill, no more than I am. He is just a terrible bore, and a sneak into the bargain. If there were other boys I could be friends with, Oliver would be no friend of mine."
Helena's heart went out to the boy who, for want of a real friend, put up with someone whom he did not like. What a lonely life Jeremy Davies must have led! Helena compared it with her own happy childhood at Erpingham Hall. There had been plenty of children about – Helena had always had someone to play with. But then, Helena also had brothers and a sister. True, her brothers had been much younger than she had been, and she had never had much in common with Grace, but nevertheless, they had been there. There had also been the children of servants. Her father's steward had had two sons who were about Helena's age, and Helena had often gone fishing with them – until she had turned fourteen and her mother had told her that "a young lady ought not to mix with that lot".
When the gentlemen joined them in the drawing room, Jeremy said goodnight to his father and the guests and then went upstairs to his room.
Mrs. Montagu suggested a game of whist, and the card table was set up accordingly. Mr. Howard had seated himself in an armchair and had picked up the book Helena had read to Mrs. Montagu. It was evident that he did not want to play cards. Helena was to play with Mr. Davies, who, since there was no one else to take part in the game, had to oblige his guests. He was an excellent player, Helena soon found out. They won the first game, and were about to win the second, when Mrs. Montagu decided that she was too tired to go on playing.
"Let us finish this game, then," Mr. Davies said, "and leave it at that. We can go on another evening if you like, Aunt."
Mrs. Montagu shook her head and said, firmly, "It may not be a habit of yours to think of others, Philip, but I am old and weak. I need a good night's sleep much more than young people, to be sure." With these words, she rose and left the room, telling Helena not to stay up too late "as she was going to start her day early tomorrow."
"Aunt Montagu has never been a good loser," Mr. Davies said when Mrs. Montagu was safely out of earshot. "I am very sorry, Miss Erpingham, but it seems we will have to postpone our triumph to some other day."
"Never mind, sir," Helena said with a smile. "It would not have been much of a triumph anyway, with your aunt being offended."
Mr. Davies laughed. "What about a game of chess instead?" he asked Helena. "When you played with my aunt yesterday I noticed you were a good player."
"I lost, Mr. Davies."
"I know. One has to be an excellent player to manage losing against Aunt Montagu."
Helena laughed. "I see you have found me out, Mr. Davies. Was I that obvious?"
"Not to Aunt Montagu, to be certain, or she would have told you so," Mr. Davies replied. "She does not approve of such methods, you know. Aunt Montagu is the sort who wants to win honourably but makes a fuss if she loses. It is not that she means to be disagreeable, but she is used to having things her own way."
"Heaven knows she is," Mrs. Howard sighed and, with a look at her husband, who was by now gently snoring in his comfortable chair, got up. "It seems we should get home, too," she said with a smile. "I hope you will not mind my joining you tomorrow, Miss Erpingham. My aunt said she wished me to come along."
Helena did not mind at all. She liked Mrs. Howard, and perhaps, with Mrs. Howard there would be someone to talk to, at least. No one marked her when she was alone with Mrs. Montagu.
Mr. Davies took leave of his sister and brother-in-law, and then returned to the card table. "So, what about that game of chess?" he asked. "Are you going to play or do you want to follow my aunt’s advice and retire early?"
A look at the clock assured Helena that it was not yet late, and she decided that there was still enough time for a quick game of chess. As Mr. Davies set up the chessboard, Helena said, quietly, "I have to congratulate you on your son, sir. I think Jeremy is a wonderful child. He has the admirable gift of making friends easily."
Mr. Davies smiled fondly – it was a smile that made him look quite attractive. "Oh yes, he has," he said. "He inherited it from his mother – among other things. Yet, he got too much mischievousness from his father to be quite as pleasing in his manners as she was."
"Is his father mischievous," Helena asked. "I did not notice anything."
"Not yet," Mr. Davies answered with a smile. "I do not usually show off my faults at such short acquaintance. – About my son, Miss Erpingham, I sometimes think I am not handling the thing properly. I may be a bit ... over-indulgent with him."
"I do not think so," Helena said. "As far as I could tell by your behaviour tonight, I think you are not. Jeremy knows the difference between what is right and what is wrong."
"It is hard sometimes," Mr. Davies admitted.
"I know. My mother died when I was fourteen, Mr. Davies, and left my father alone with four children. Yet, he managed very well – and so do you, if I may say so."
"Quite so. I manage," Mr. Davies said, and made his first move. Helena realised that, as far as he was concerned, the conversation was finished, and did not attempt to continue it. They played their game silently, and after Mr. Davies had accepted his defeat (he did so very graciously), Helena retired to her room.
Mrs. Howard’s presence, the next day, did not much to make Helena’s lot easier. Though she was kind enough to talk to Helena while they did some shopping in Milsom Street, as soon as the three ladies arrived at the Pump Room, Helena was invisible again. Mrs. Montagu and Mrs. Howard were conversing with their acquaintance, and after having introduced Helena – not by name, but as "Mrs. Montagu’s companion" – Helena was at leisure to look about her and watch the people in the room. Suddenly she saw a familiar face in the crowd – it was Mr. Carmichael, and he was in the company of two ladies and two gentlemen. He noticed her, and came towards them.
"Miss Erpingham, am I right?" he asked. "How do you do?"
Glad that at least someone had taken notice of her, Helena greeted Mr. Carmichael.
"I see my patient is here as well, as is Mrs. Howard. Good morning to you, ladies." Mrs. Howard replied to Mr. Carmichael’s salute quite affably, while Mrs. Montagu only gave him a nod.
"I see you have guests, Mr. Carmichael," Mrs. Howard said, glancing at the young lady in his company.
"True. They only arrived this morning and wished to be shown around in Bath as soon as possible."
He beckoned the young lady and introduced her as Miss Flora Mackay, his fiancée. The rest of their party were Miss Mackay’s parents and her brother.
As the parties moved on, Helena was walking side by side with young Mr. and Miss Mackay, and they soon started a delightful conversation with her. After having satisfied each other as to their homes, families, likes and dislikes, they had to part, but Helena had a very favourable picture of the Mackay family. She knew that Mr. Davies and Mr. Carmichael were friends, and hoped that this friendship would take the Mackays to Pulteney Street very often. It would be nice not to be invisible, for a change.
Flora Mackay turned out to be a valuable friend. She and her brother accompanied Mr Carmichael when he called on Mrs Montagu the next day, and while her employer was busy, Helena was at leisure to talk to them a bit more.
"I like your dress," Miss Mackay said. "It looks as if it had been made in London."
"So it has," Helena said, smilingly.
"I wish I could have gone to London to buy my trousseau, but I had to content myself with Edinburgh." Miss Mackay smiled. "Not that I have anything against Edinburgh, mind you, but it takes some time until word of the latest London fashions reaches our town."
"Which is a big drawback, of course," Mr Mackay said, mockingly.
"Oh, you do not care, I know," Miss Mackay said to her brother. "Miss Erpingham, my brother cannot tell one gown from the other."
"Yes, I can," Mr Mackay protested. "I can tell by the colour."
"Credit where credit is due," Miss Mackay retorted. "He calls eau-de-nil greenish, Miss Erpingham. And my ivory ball-gown is, according to my brother, yellow."
"I must admit," Helena said, "that my brothers are lacking in their ability to appreciate ladies’ fashions, as well. But I have not given up hope yet. Now that they are going to be in my sister’s care during their holidays, they will be taught everything they need to know. Anything my sister does not know about the latest fashion is not worth knowing."
Mr Mackay muttered something that resembled "Poor lads", which was, in Helena's opinion, too true to be contradicted. Lady Woodward's taste in clothes, however, was not the main reason.
"I was wondering, Miss Erpingham," Miss Mackay began, thoughtfully, and, after a pause, continued, "I was wondering whether Mrs Montagu might be able to spare you one of these days. You see, my mother and I want to buy some draperies for the house in George Street, and unfortunately our tastes are not quite the same. I should be very glad to have some person with me who can give us impartial advice."
"But will not your mother take offence," Helena asked. "I am quite certain my mother would have. I would not wish to displease Mrs Mackay."
"You could not offend my mother even if you tried, Miss Erpingham," Mr Mackay said. "Do consider coming along with my sister."
"I shall have to ask Mrs Montagu first, of course," Helena said. "I cannot go without her permission."
"Of course," Miss Mackay replied. "I shall ask her, if you want to."
Helena declined this offer. It was she who wanted something from her employer, and she did not like to give the impression that she was pushing others to step forward for her to get what she wanted.
Helena waited until the evening, when she was seated in the drawing room with Mrs Montagu, to ask for her permission. Carefully she explained why Miss Mackay wanted to have her with them, and pointed out that, so far, she had not had much time to herself since their arrival in Bath.
Mrs Montagu thought for a while, before she hesitatingly granted Helena her consent to spend one day with the Mackays.
"Although I do not feel too comfortable about it," she added. "Who knows what sort of people they are?"
"They made a perfectly respectable impression on me, Mrs Montagu," Helena said. "Every one of them. Besides, I am certain Mr Carmichael would not think of marrying Miss Mackay if there were the slightest doubt as to her being well-bred. He has a reputation to keep up, Mrs Montagu, and, as you will have noticed, he is a gentleman."
"I only said that I feel uncomfortable about letting you go about town with people you hardly know, Miss Erpingham," Mrs Montagu said, sourly. "But you are old enough to know what you are doing, I guess. Just make sure to tell me in time, so I can find another companion for my walk."
"I certainly will, Mrs Montagu," Helena said and picked up the book to read another chapter to her employer. Shortly after that, Mr Davies joined them and sat down in the easy chair, listening intently to Helena’s reading.
Helena retired early that night, following Mrs Montagu’s example. She was extremely tired, and fell asleep at once, not noticing that a black, furry creature emerged from under her bed, jumped onto it and curled up at her feet. Mephisto was not going to give up his favourite spot, it seemed.
"I do not want to spend the afternoon with Oliver," Jeremy complained. "Please, Father, do not make me go."
"What is it this time, Jeremy," Philip asked, annoyed by his son's denial.
"I cannot stand Oliver and his friends," Jeremy answered. "Last time I was with them they ignored me all the time, so why should I join them in the first place?"
Mrs Jenkins, Oliver's grandmother, had invited Oliver and all his friends including Jeremy to a children's performance at the local theatre. Philip, glad that his son could have some amusement with children at his own age, had gladly consented that Jeremy should go – only to be rewarded with his son's point-blank refusal. An argument was the very last thing Philip wanted at the moment, yet he felt that, if he gave in now, he would have to do so again and again. Which he did not want. Jeremy had to accept that his father, not he, was the boss in this family.
"Perhaps you should just make a little bit more of an effort," Philip said. "I know you – probably you showed them clearly that you did not want to have anything to do with them. Try to be a bit more encouraging. Come, Jeremy, it will not hurt."
"Sitting in the theatre for hours with Oliver the sneak and Dumb Geoffrey Hellstone," Jeremy muttered.
"His name is Geoffrey Halston, Jeremy."
"But he is dumb," Jeremy defended himself. "Thick as a brick, and mad as hell."
"Who taught you such language, Jeremy?" Philip asked, all amazement.
"I certainly did not," Philip said, racking his brains as to whether he had ever used offensive language in the presence of his son. He was shocked to find out that he could not swear to the opposite.
"Do I really have to go?" Jeremy asked, using his ultimate weapon, the Pleading Puppy Look.
For a fraction of a moment, Philip wavered, but finally said, "Yes, you do. Emily will help you to get ready, and Mrs Jenkins will come to pick you up at three o'clock. Try to have fun, at least."
In a way Philip understood Jeremy, although he did not admit it. It was a pity that there were not more children around. But it was important for Jeremy to associate with children who were his own age or at least near it, and since Oliver was the only one around, he would have to do. He was a well-behaved boy, and Philip hoped that his good breeding would set an example for Jeremy.
"Where did you meet Mr Carmichael for the first time," Helena asked Miss Mackay on their shopping expedition. "In Edinburgh?"
"He used to work for my father," Miss Mackay answered. "He needed to gain some experience in his profession, and my father was acquainted with his uncle, so my father took him in. I did not really like him at first." Miss Mackay smiled.
"So what made you change your mind?" Helena asked when Miss Mackay did not go on.
"He did. I do not know how he did it – I do believe he had his mind set on me from the very beginning, and he did everything to win my heart. He really made an effort, and I think that did it in the end – the thought that there was a man prepared to do anything for me just to call me his own. I could not help but fall in love with him."
"I think Mr Carmichael will be an excellent husband," Helena said.
"I have no doubt he will," Miss Mackay said. "I would not marry him if I had."
"When will the wedding take place?" Helena asked.
"We will get married at Epiphany," Miss Mackay said. "In St Swithin's Church. Do you think you will be able to come? I will need a bridesmaid."
Helena blushed happily. "You want me to be your bridesmaid?"
"Oh yes, if you can spare the time, that is, I would love you to."
"It will be an honour," Helena said.
Mrs Mackay joined them with a salesman in tow, and they spent the next hour discussing fabrics and patterns. They finally settled on one fabric for the drawing room draperies and another one for the upholstery in said room, and set out in the direction of another shop.
When they had finished their shopping, Mrs Mackay invited Helena to have some tea with her and her daughter at their lodgings, and Helena was only too happy to accept. The Mackays had been so friendly to her ever since their arrival, they treated her better than anyone else – apart from Mr Davies and Jeremy, of course. They had, so far, been her only friends in Bath.
The ladies sat in Mrs Mackay's parlour when the gentlemen of the family arrived, proudly announcing that they had finally been successful in purchasing the perfect wedding present for the happy couple.
"And what have you bought," Miss Mackay asked her brother.
He laughed. "As if I'd tell you," he said. "You will find out on your wedding day, not a day sooner, sister. The greatest pleasure in giving presents is the recipient's surprise."
"Fine. I will tease you until you tell me."
"Do so. I am looking forward to it." Mr Mackay gave Helena a wink and sat down in a chair facing her. "So, has my sister found what she was looking for," he asked.
"I think she has," Helena said. "Her drawing room will be one of the most elegant ones in Bath, I believe."
"I have to warn you before you start describing what exactly you have chosen, Miss Erpingham," Mr Mackay said laughingly. "As my sister mentioned, I am not especially good at that sort of thing. I'd rather look at the results of my sister's shopping than hear about them. But fire away if you want to."
Helena laughed. "I think no one would have the heart to plague you with a tedious account of our shopping expedition after your confession, Mr Mackay. It would be cruel to do so, and, whatever you may think of me, I hope you do not think that cruelty is one of my faults."
Mr Mackay gave her an earnest look. "You have not given me any cause to think so, Miss Erpingham."
"I am glad to have your good opinion, Mr Mackay."
A quick glance at the clock convinced Helena that she had better be going. Mrs Montagu would probably already be waiting for her, and Helena did not want to annoy her. So, after having thanked Mrs and Miss Mackay for their hospitality and having taken leave from the gentlemen, Helena set out in the direction of Pulteney Street.
On arriving there, she found that Mrs Montagu had not yet returned from this day's walk, and went upstairs to her room to write some letters in her absence.
She had just begun to relate the past few days' events to Cecy, when she heard footsteps run past her room and the door to Jeremy's room slam shut. Curious as to what had happened, Helena went across the landing and gently knocked at the boy's door.
"Jeremy? Is there anything wrong?"
Cautiously, Jeremy opened the door and looked outside, checking the stairs whether there was anyone coming. He had taken off his coat, and Helena noticed two bloodstains on the sleeves of his shirt.
"What has happened, Jeremy," she exclaimed anxiously.
"I gave Geoffrey Hellstone what he deserved," Jeremy said, darkly. "And now my father is going to kill me."
"Nonsense, Jeremy. Your father will not do any such thing. Now tell me what happened."
Helena entered the room, and Jeremy closed the door behind her, relating how Oliver and Geoffrey had teased him all the time, whenever Mrs Jenkins had turned her back on them, and how Geoffrey had provoked Jeremy until he had hit him in his face.
"But why did you?" Helena asked. "What did he do to make you do that?"
"He said something about my father," Jeremy said. "I cannot tell you what it was – and I am certainly not going to tell him - and I got so angry I hit him. Unfortunately, I think I broke his nose. Mrs Jenkins was beside herself, called me a spoilt, evil brat, and said she would tell my father what I had done."
"Oh dear," Helena cried, imagining how Mr Davies would react on the news. "Did Mrs Jenkins not hear what that Geoffrey had said?"
"No, she did not, she was too busy gossiping," Jeremy said. "And even if she had heard it, she would not have minded, I guess. Geoffrey and Oliver can do whatever they want. If anything happens, it is always my fault."
"You should tell your father what happened," she said.
"No, I will not, even if he locks me in here for the rest of my life," Jeremy said determinedly. "At least I will not have to see those awful sneaks any more if he does." He sighed. "I guess I am in for a good thrashing this time. My father has never hit me before, but I guess today he will."
"I do not think your father will beat you," Helena said. "What would be the point? One cannot teach one's children not to hit others by beating them up. No, I think you are quite safe."
There was a noise downstairs, and they distinctly heard Mr Davies calling for his son. "There he is," Jeremy said gloomily.
"Do you want me to stay?" Helena asked.
Jeremy shook his head. "No," he said. "It would not be any use. I guess we will not meet any more before you leave, Miss Erpingham."
"Oh, I think we will," Helena said, giving Jeremy an encouraging smile. "You will see."
Helena did not dare to ask Mr Davies what had passed between him and his son. She wished Mr Davies had mentioned anything in her presence, it would have opened the door to a discussion of the matter, and perhaps she might have stepped in to help Jeremy - but she did not get the chance.
When Mrs Montagu asked Mr Davies where Jeremy was, he simply replied that the boy was in his room and would not dine with them that day, without giving his aunt any information regarding the reason for Jeremy's exile. Mrs Montagu did not ask either, and so they proceeded to the dining room.
Dinner was a quiet affair that day – Mr Davies looked pale and worried, quietly ate his dinner and did not contribute much to the conversation. Mrs Montagu was not that inclined to talking either – after having demanded an account of what Helena had been doing all day, she, too, turned her attention to her meal and left Helena to her own thoughts.
After dinner, when the ladies had retired to the drawing room, Mrs Montagu asked Helena whether she liked the theatre.
"I always attended some plays whenever I was in London, Mrs Montagu, and I used to enjoy them very much," Helena replied.
"Good," Mrs Montagu said, "for Mr and Mrs Howard have invited us to join them in their box tomorrow evening. They are showing Love's Labours Lost at the Theatre Royal."
This was excellent news, Helena thought. The play would, perhaps, make her forget her own problems – and the Davies' problems, as well. It was strange how their troubles affected her as well – her, who had nothing at all to do with them, if one came to think of it. She would have to try to detach herself from their concerns. The last thing she wanted was to give anyone the impression that she was trying to force herself into that family.
It was raining hard the next morning. When Helena awoke, she heard the raindrops on the window pane, and felt Mephisto, the cat, curled up next to her legs. Helena tickled his head, and he sat up, stretched and purred loudly. Suddenly, he decided that there had been enough display of friendship, hissed and jumped from Helena's bed, heading for the door. There he turned around, and mewed imperiously as if telling Helena to let him out.
Helena stopped at Jeremy's door for a moment before going downstairs to have her breakfast. There was no sound from within, and assuming that Jeremy was either still asleep or had gone out, she proceeded to the dining room.
Mrs Montagu was already there and informed Helena that, owing to the bad weather, she intended to stay at home that morning.
"There is one thing you can do for me, however," she added. "I have ordered a couple of books at the library. Will you go and pick them up?"
"Certainly," Helena said. The prospect of going out into the pouring rain did not tempt her, but on the other hand she was not keen on staying in the house in the sole company of Mrs Montagu either. So, having finished her breakfast and put on her coat and bonnet, Helena set out in the direction of the public library to get Mrs Montagu's books.
While the librarian was preparing the parcel for Mrs Montagu, Helena entertained herself with some of the fashion magazines. Some of the latest fashions were really hilarious in her opinion, and she imagined her sister wearing them – which she would, Helena was quite certain.
The librarian finally approached Helena with a parcel of books for Mrs Montagu, and seeing that the rain had, at least for the time being, subsided, Helena left the library with the intention of walking back to Pulteney Street as quickly as possible, to be there when it started to pour down again. She had hardly stepped out of the building, however, when someone hailed her, and that someone turned out to be young Mr Mackay. He told her that he had been on his way to the library, too, to get some books for himself and his sister, and offered Helena to accompany her to Pulteney Street.
"But then you will have to postpone your visit to the library," Helena protested.
"I suppose the library will still be open in half an hour," Mr Mackay said, good-naturedly. "There now, let me carry your parcel, Miss Erpingham."
Not wishing to be rude, Helena handed the parcel to Mr Mackay without any further contradiction.
"It seems you are an avid reader, Miss Erpingham," Mr Mackay remarked as they walked down the street side by side.
"I am," Helena admitted, "although those books are not for me. Mrs Montagu has ordered them and asked me to pick them up at the library. Yet, I guess I will have to read them to her in the evenings."
"Is Mrs Montagu's taste in books very different from yours," Mr Mackay inquired.
"Sometimes it is, but most of the time I enjoy reading to her," Helena replied.
"Honestly, Miss Erpingham, is it not boring at times? Attending to Mrs Montagu, I mean. Doing the same things every day, with not the least prospect of change – this is quite disheartening, if you ask me."
Helena laughed. "There is not much else I can do, Mr Mackay," she said. "I think I am quite lucky to have found a position like this. As to boredom, that has never been any of my problems. Boredom is for people who do not know how to employ their time, and I have never been that sort. – Here we are, Mr Mackay," Helena said, glad that they had reached her destination. "May I have my parcel, sir? I am certain Mrs Montagu is already waiting for her books."
Mr Mackay handed Helena the parcel and said, smilingly, "Until tonight, then, Miss Erpingham. I understand you will be at the theatre with us."
"I will," Helena answered. "Are you looking forward to the play, sir?"
"Very," Mr Mackay said, took leave and walked off towards the library.
Helena entered the house and found Mrs Montagu in the drawing room, looking out of the window impatiently.
"Whatever took you so long?" she demanded, hardly leaving Helena enough time to close the door.
"I had to wait at the library, Madam," Helena said calmly and gave Mrs Montagu her packet. Mrs Montagu unwrapped it and inspected its contents. "One is missing," she said, angrily.
"There are only three, and I had ordered four. Where is Evelina?"
"There must have been a mistake at the library," Helena said, still appearing calm but longing to dash something to pieces. "I did not know how many books you had ordered, Mrs Montagu - a couple of books was what you had mentioned to me. I told the librarian that I was there to pick up Mrs Montagu's order, and this is what he gave me. It can hardly be my fault."
"Had you paid attention to what the librarian was doing instead of flirting with Mr Mackay, this might not have happened," Mrs Montagu said, maliciously.
Angrily, Helena said, "I do not think my behaviour with any gentleman of my acquaintance deserves your censure, Madam – I can hardly ignore Mr Mackay when he comes my way in the street. As to Evelina, I will go to the library tomorrow and ask for it."
"You will go at once," Mrs Montagu said. "I have been looking forward to that book especially, and I do not see why I am to be deprived of the pleasure to read it because of your carelessness."
Helena was just about to give Mrs Montagu the answer she deserved, when suddenly a calm, male voice said, "I do not think Miss Erpingham will have to go all the way back to the library for this particular book, Aunt."
Both ladies turned to Mr Davies, whom they had not noticed up to this moment.
"Evelina used to be one of my wife's favourite novels," Mr Davies continued, "and I am quite certain you will find a cherished and much-read edition on one of the bookshelves in her room. Mrs Doyle will show you where it is, Miss Erpingham."
"Thank you, Mr Davies," Helena said, embarrassed that her employer's nephew had had to witness such a scene.
Mr Davies turned to his aunt. "You are most welcome to have any book from my own as well as my wife's collection while you are staying here, aunt," he said. "Perhaps it would be prudent to check whether the book you want is available here before you send Miss Erpingham on errands in such weather."
Knowing that Mrs Montagu would not put up with remonstrance from her nephew, Helena left the drawing room before the ensuing family quarrel started. She went downstairs to the housekeeper's parlour and asked Mrs Doyle to show her Mrs Davies' room. Mrs Doyle could not help but be surprised, and she said so. She told Helena that she was the first person in years to enter that room – "apart from the maids, of course, and Mr Davies, occasionally".
Having important chores to do, Mrs Doyle left Helena to the task of finding the book in Mrs Davies' shelves and returned to her work. Helena had a look at her surroundings. Mrs Davies' room was large, and had been kept scrupulously clean. It gave Helena the impression as if its occupant were to return any moment. Every thing was in its place, the paper, ink bottle and quill on the writing desk, and the books in the shelves. Helena wondered whether she were to find Mrs Davies' clothes if she looked into the closet. Somehow she felt like an intruder, and hurried to find the book for Mrs Montagu in order to leave the room as soon as possible.
Mrs Davies seemed to have been an enthusiastic reader, and one with excellent taste, too. In her collection, Helena discovered many books that she had read as well, along with some that she had always wanted to read. Finally, Helena found Evelina, took the volume from the shelf and turned to go. Her eyes fell on a small bouquet of dried roses on the bedside table, and somehow these flowers brought to her mind that the owner of this room would not return. She had never known Mrs Davies, yet the thought affected her deeply.
It made her think of her own situation, and a feeling of utter hopelessness overcame her. Her position in Mrs Montagu's household was not what she had imagined it to be, she was little more than a servant, and this was hard on someone who had been used to be in charge of servants. Being treated like a poor, dependent relation when she was really Sir Paul Erpingham's daughter was hard to take. Helena contemplated whether she should leave Mrs Montagu's service, but then where was she to go? Returning to Hilmerton Park was unacceptable – no doubt Grace and her husband would take her in, but Helena knew that they would lose no opportunity to let her know how very generous they were by allowing her to live in their house after all she had done to them. Her position there would be little different from her position in Newark House – or here in Pulteney Street.
Cecy would soon be leaving for the Continent, so she was out of the question, too. The only chance for Helena was her uncle, who was, at present, on his way to England. If all else failed, she could ask her uncle to take her with him to Savannah – but this would mean she would have to break the promise she had given to her brothers. She had promised she would always be there for them. How could she go to America and leave them behind?
Recollecting herself, Helena returned to the drawing room and handed Mrs Montagu the book, who took it without a word of thanks.
It would not hurt to keep the Savannah opportunity in the back of her mind, Helena thought. How long would it take her uncle to reach England?
"I say, Mr Davies, what a pleasant surprise to see you here," Mrs Halston exclaimed, affecting a welcoming smile. "And your son, too!"
"You can have no doubt as to the purpose of our visit, Mrs Halston," Philip said. "Jeremy has something important to say to your Geoffrey."
"Indeed," Mrs Halston said, and sent her servant to fetch Master Geoffrey to the reception room.
"I hope his injury is not as bad as it looked at first, Mrs Halston," Philip said, quietly.
"Oh, no," Mrs Halston said. "Geoffrey felt quite well this morning. My, boys do fight at times, do they not?"
Philip was glad to see that Mrs Halston, unlike Mrs Jenkins, did not seem to take the incident seriously. His ears were still ringing when he thought of Mrs Jenkins's shrill voice as she had predicted Jeremy a first-rate career as a criminal. Geoffrey Halston arrived in the reception room, sporting a magnificent black eye that was, no doubt, another result of close contact with Jeremy's fists.
"Jeremy," Philip said to his son, "you know what I told you. Apologize. Properly."
Jeremy went over to Geoffrey, offered him his hand and did apologize properly, although, perhaps, his tone was lacking in sincerity at times. Geoffrey accepted the apology graciously, whereupon Mrs Halston suggested that the boys should go and play while she and Mr Davies had a cup of tea.
"You will take a cup of tea, won't you, sir," she said. "Go and show Jeremy your new tin soldiers, Geoffrey."
Philip was not really certain whether it was a good idea to let the boys play all by themselves, but refrained from saying so. He had warned Jeremy that any outburst of temperament would be followed by strict punishment, and trusted that such a warning would suffice to keep his son at bay. He could not vouch for Geoffrey, though.
The boys went off, however, and Philip believed that not too much mischief could happen in ten minutes. He thanked Mrs Halston for the tea, and inquired after Mr Halston who, as usual, was not at home. Mrs Halston gave Philip all the particulars of why her husband had gone out and where he had gone, although Philip could have sworn he knew more about Mr Halston's whereabouts than his wife. Having finished his tea in record time, Philip summoned his son and said goodbye to his hostess.
"You see, this was not that bad, Jeremy," he remarked once they were safely seated in their carriage.
"Yes, it was," Jeremy said, stubbornly. "I hope you will not make me visit that Geoffrey any more. I cannot stand him. And he did not apologize for what he said yesterday."
"Is there anything he should have apologized for?" Philip asked. For a moment, Jeremy looked as if he was going to tell him something, but that expression changed in an instant.
"No," he said.
"You cannot expect him to say he is sorry, then," Philip answered. "You know why I wanted you to talk to him?"
Jeremy looked out of the window silently.
"In little less than a year, Jeremy, you will be going to school, and you will be meeting all sorts of boys," Philip said. "Not all of them will be to your taste, and not all of them will be your friends. I do not worry about those you will like, Jeremy, but there will be others. Boys like Geoffrey Halston. You need to learn to get along with all sorts, or there will be a great deal of trouble. Do you understand me?"
There was no answer from Jeremy. Philip sighed. "Do you understand me," he repeated his question.
"I think I do," Jeremy said.
"Good." Philip smiled. "Now let us go and see whether Cook has made her famous chocolate cake, shall we?"
Philip dreaded meeting his aunt in the evening. She had openly declared that she did not savour his interference in her business.
"I can deal with Miss Erpingham myself," she had said, coldly. Philip had replied that he could not be expected to stand by and watch someone being blamed unjustly without doing anything about it. Then he had left his aunt to herself, to get dressed for the outing with Jeremy, and had not seen her any more all day.
The Howards were to dine with him before they all went to the theatre, and so his sister and her husband were already waiting in the drawing room when Philip came downstairs, dressed in his evening clothes.
Shortly after that, Miss Erpingham joined the party, and Philip could not help but notice her beauty. She wore a dove-grey silk dress he had not seen on her before, modest but yet becoming. Her hair was done in a different, more elaborate style than usual, and her whole appearance attracted admiration. It was hard to take his eyes off Miss Erpingham, and, which embarrassed Philip most, she seemed to notice he was staring at her. With a smile, she turned to him and thanked him for his assistance with Mrs Montagu in the morning.
"How is Jeremy," she asked, once they were seated at the dining table. "Has he recovered from yesterday's trouble?"
"I beg your pardon," Philip said. "I did not know it was Jeremy who needed recovery."
Miss Erpingham laughed. "Your son was quite afraid of what you might say, sir," she said. "He really worried about it. I told him that his father would be reasonable enough not to punish him too severely, considering that he had hit that boy after he had abused his father…"
"Abused me?" This was the first time Philip had heard about it – Jeremy had not said a word. "Jeremy told you that that Halston boy had abused me?"
"Quite so," Miss Erpingham said. "Did he not tell you? I advised him to do so, sir."
"He did not mention a single word. So, what did Geoffrey Halston say to make my son come to my rescue?"
"I do not know," Miss Erpingham said. "Jeremy did not tell me. He only said that he would not repeat it to me – or you, for that matter. I am afraid he is going to keep us in the dark about it."
Philip laughed. "Now I know why Jeremy wanted Geoffrey Halston to apologize," he said. "But, apparently, he did not – and I am proud to say that he will be wearing the marks of my son's censure for a while. Do not mention this to Jeremy, Miss Erpingham – I do not want to encourage such behaviour, even if he had the best intentions in beating up the boy who soiled his father's name."
Dinner was finished, and the ladies retired to the drawing room, leaving Philip to the mercy of his brother-in-law, a man who was, no doubt, one of the most respectable and kindly men he knew, but not the most entertaining one. So he was glad when finally the time to leave for the theatre arrived. Philip arrived in time to help Miss Erpingham into her coat. A curious sensation arose in him as he wrapped the coat round her shoulders – a feeling of tenderness he had not had for ages. He wondered what it would be like to put his arms around her and hold her… Philip banished the thought – it would not do for him to think of Miss Erpingham in that way. She was pretty, and she was lovable, no doubt – but it would not do for him, Philip Davies, to fall in love with her.
Had anyone asked Philip the next day whether he had liked the performance at the theatre, he would not have been able to answer the question. Had anyone, however, asked him how Miss Erpingham had spent the evening, Philip would have been able to give that person a detailed account. He had been unable to take his eyes off her all evening, had watched her as she had been seated in front of him, had followed her conversation even if she had been unaware of it, and, most of all, had kept an eye on every gesture she had made towards young Mackay. Philip had no right to be jealous, and he was perfectly aware of that, but he could not help being jealous nevertheless. Ever since a certain Miss Constable had entered his life, Philip had not felt like this – his heart missed a beat whenever Miss Erpingham looked at him, and if she happened to smile, his heart started to melt. In a way Philip hoped Miss Erpingham would leave Bath soon, and leave him to his quiet, untroubled life with his son. At the same time he hoped she might stay forever, knowing that this could not be. When Louisa had died, he had sworn never to attach himself to any woman again. He would rather live without love than losing her the way he had lost Louisa. For the sake of his own peace of mind, he had to forget Miss Erpingham, and he had better forget her quickly. If only his heart would hear reason…
"Those Christmas preparations will be the death of me, I am sure," Mrs Doyle, the housekeeper, said and sat down. "However, I can always spare couple of minutes for a cup of tea with you, Miss Erpingham. Has Mephisto been in your bedroom again?"
Helena smiled. "I have come to believe that my bedroom is actually his, Mrs Doyle," she said. "If there is any way in which I can assist you, Mrs Doyle, do tell me."
"This is too kind," Mrs Doyle said, sipping her tea. "But believe me; I can deal with everything very well. Mr Davies always invites his friends to dine with him on Christmas Eve, and we always manage somehow. Though the dinners are not what they used to be when Mrs Davies was still alive. Now there was a woman who knew how to entertain her guests…but then, things have never been the same ever since she has passed away. You should have known Mr Davies before that happened – the world has never seen a more charming, amiable man than him."
Helena did not doubt this. In her opinion, one had to go a long way to find a man as amiable as Mr Davies.
"He really should find himself another wife," Mrs Doyle continued. "It is not healthy, living the way he does, and the boy does need a mother."
Embarrassed, and disapproving of Mrs Doyle's frankness, Helena tried to divert Mrs Doyle's thoughts to something more suitable, finished her tea, and left Mrs Doyle's parlour as soon as possible. On walking up the stairs, however, she nearly bumped into the very man who had been on her mind ever since the evening before – Mr Davies.
"Miss Erpingham," he said, obviously surprised at meeting her coming from the servants' rooms downstairs.
"Good afternoon, Mr Davies," Helena managed to say, and added, "I have been to see Mrs Doyle – Mephisto was hiding in my room again, and I took him back to where he belongs."
"Did you manage to do so without being seriously hurt, or do I have to send for Mr Carmichael," Mr Davies asked, smilingly.
"Oh, the longer I know Mephisto, the better he behaves," Helena replied. "I do not think I will need Mr Carmichael's help right now. Thank you all the same, Mr Davies." Mr Davies looked rather handsome when he smiled…
"I am glad to hear that cat has something of a gentleman, at least. Although it is not particularly gentleman-like to hide under young ladies' beds."
Helena laughed. "I think I shall forgive him," she said. "He might be doing this for the best."
"His best, certainly. Cats are selfish creatures as a rule, and Mephisto is an especially selfish specimen." He was interrupted by a maid coming downstairs, telling Helena that Mrs Montagu wanted her. With a barely perceptible sigh, Helena made her way upstairs, nodding to Mr Davies by way of a goodbye.
Mrs Montagu received her in the drawing room, holding a note in her hands.
"Ah, there you are," she said. "Whatever took you so long, I wonder? I want you to run some errands for me – the weather today, I hope, is more to your taste than it was yesterday."
"It is a particularly fine day for this time of year," Helena said meekly. When Mrs Montagu was in such a mood as this, opposition would be to no avail. Equipped with an enormous list of things to do, Helena set out into town, fully aware that she would have to postpone her meeting with Miss Mackay. Until she had met Mrs Montagu's demands, there would be no way for her to spend even five minutes in her friend's company.
It was Christmas Eve, and Helena was getting ready for the Christmas dinner, which, she had understood, was to be a grand occasion. She would be meeting a great deal of Mr Davies' friends, and wanted to make a good impression on them – although why she should care what impression they had of her was a mystery to her. Yet, she did what she could, and spent more time in front of the mirror than usual.
Her efforts were rewarded the moment she entered the drawing room and encountered Mr Mackay. He obviously appreciated her looks, although he did not say so – the glint in his eyes when he greeted her was enough to assure her of his admiration. She could not talk much to Mr Mackay, however. Mr Davies had appeared by her side, ready to introduce her to those of his friends she had not yet met. Among them was a Mr Constable, who was a distant cousin of the late Mrs Davies's, his wife, and two other gentlemen, Mr Davies's club acquaintances, with their wives.
At the dinner table, Helena was seated between Mr Mackay and Mr Constable, and enjoyed herself thoroughly talking to both of them. Mr Constable, it turned out, had been acquainted with her father, and they spent most of the time talking about Sir Paul Erpingham, while Mr Mackay listened. A short pause ensued, after Mr Constable had expressed his sympathy for Helena's loss, after which Mr Mackay told Helena how disappointed his sister had been the other day, on hearing that Miss Erpingham had not been able to keep her appointment.
"I assume it was Mrs Montagu's fault you could not come, Miss Erpingham," he said, his tone leaving no doubt as to his opinion of Mrs Montagu.
"It is my duty to tend to Mrs Montagu," Helena replied. "Unfortunately she needed my help just then, so I was unable to go for that promised walk with your sister. I hope she understood my reason for deferring my visit."
"She did, Miss Erpingham," Mr Mackay said. "But she was disappointed nevertheless. So was I," he added with a shy smile. "We have become quite fond of your company, you must know. Flora hopes you will remain in Bath for long – once my family will be gone back to Edinburgh, she will feel a bit forlorn, I am afraid."
"I hope she will not," Helena said. "With a husband like Mr Carmichael and his large acquaintance, she will soon feel at home – with or without me. I do not know how long Mrs Montagu means to stay in Bath, and I will have to leave when she does."
"I could never put up with being dependent on someone like Mrs Montagu," Mr Mackay said, determinedly.
"It is easy for a gentleman to say so," Helena said quietly. "They can pick and choose with whom they want to associate. But I cannot – there is not much choice I have."
"I thought you had a sister who is married to a gentleman of fortune, Miss Erpingham," Mr Constable remarked, sounding rather surprised. "I distinctly remember Sir Paul saying something to that effect."
"True," Helena said. "Yet, I had my reasons for leaving her home. I am sorry, sir, but I do not wish to discuss this."
With a nod, Mr Constable turned to the lady sitting to his left, and left Helena to converse with Mr Mackay. Mr Mackay did not refer to Mrs Montagu any more, but amused Helena with an account of a concert he had attended with his sister. The ladies retired to the drawing room shortly after that, and Helena had the opportunity to sit and talk with Miss Mackay, while Mrs Montagu was quite happily exchanging pleasantries with Mrs Howard, Mrs Constable and the other ladies.
"Have you enjoyed yourself at dinner," Miss Mackay asked, slyly. "My brother did his best to entertain you, as far as I could tell."
Helena sighed. "Could it be that your brother is growing a bit too fond of me, Flora?" she asked.
"No one can ever be too fond of you," Miss Mackay said, smilingly. "You deserve to be loved, Helena. However, I do not want my brother to fall in love with you – for selfish reasons. If you married him, you would have to live with him in Edinburgh, and would leave me all alone in Bath. No, you need to settle in Bath."
"I see you have already planned my entire future for me," Helena said with a laugh. "You forget that no one in Bath is interested in someone like me."
"Of course," Miss Mackay said. "No one in the world would want to marry a perfectly adorable creature like you. I quite forgot about that. I am afraid you are an impossible case, Miss Erpingham. – As to my brother, do not worry about him. In two weeks, he will be gone. Not much harm can be done in such a short time. Now, you must try to convince Mrs Montagu to let you go out with me one of these days."
They talked on, making plans for that day when Mrs Montagu would allow Helena to leave her for an hour or two, plans that included a visit to the local library, a milliner's shop in Milsom Street, and Molland's. Miss Mackay was certain that Helena did not get outdoors often enough, and promised this would change once she was married and in the position to be Helena's chaperon. "You need to get around some more," she said, her tone indicating that opposition would be in vain. "How are we to find you a husband in Bath if you do not leave this house?"
At this point, Mrs Howard, who always played the part of the hostess in her brother's home, announced that Mrs Constable had volunteered to entertain them with some music.
As Mrs Constable prepared for her performance, the gentlemen joined them, and Mr Mackay hurried to take the seat next to Helena. Mr Davies, who had been the last gentleman to enter the drawing room, remained standing next to the door, and listened to Mrs Constable's concert with a rather gloomy face.
After Mrs Constable had played three airs, Mrs Howard suggested a game of cards, and the card table was set up. Helena, who was not very fond of card games, was happy to see that, this evening, her participation was not needed. She turned to Mr Davies, and asked him why his son had not been with them at the dinner table.
"I think he is a bit too young to dine with a large party of guests," Mr Davies said, earnestly. "I do not mind his dining with us when there is not much company, but he has yet to learn how to deal with a larger group of guests. He will be dining with us and the Howards tomorrow, though."
"I am glad to hear it," Helena said with a smile. "I believe we have become quite good friends, and I admit I miss him."
"Well, so far he has not played a trick on you," Mr Davies said with a hint of a smile. "Which says a great deal. He only plays tricks on people he does not like. His tutor, for example, or Mrs Doyle."
"Show me the boy who does not play tricks on his teacher at times," Helena said. "My brothers were quite bad in that respect. My father had a hard time finding tutors to replace the ones who could not bear the strain on their nerves any more. It must be hard to live in constant dread of one's pupils. But my brothers behave better now that they are in Eton. I hope."
"No doubt they do," Mr Davies said, but he said so with a grin that told Helena he was not quite serious. At this moment, his sister demanded Mr Davies' presence, and he left Helena with an apologetic smile. Helena watched him join his guests, talking to his sister animatedly, and laughing at one of Mr Howard's rare jokes. Tonight he was quite different from the earnest Mr Davies she knew, and she liked the change in him. Then Miss Mackay, who had been talking to her fiancé, returned to Helena, and for the time being her thoughts turned to Miss Mackay and her impending wedding. But as soon as the guests had left and Helena had retired to her room, her mind returned to Mr Davies, and he remained in her thoughts until she fell asleep.
Unnoticed by the residents of Bath, it had begun to snow, and on Christmas morning the town was covered with a blindingly white blanket. There was not much snow, but enough to make Jeremy long to go outside before it would melt away again. He was not allowed to go out by himself, but his wish became so pressing after a while that he went downstairs in search of his father to ask for his permission. The only person he found, however, was Helena, sitting in the breakfast room reading a letter.
"Good morning, Jeremy," she said, smilingly. "You are at home? My brothers, I am certain, would have gone out long ago, were they in your place."
"I am not allowed to go without asking," Jeremy said sulkily. "And I am not to leave the house unattended. Either my father, or Emily, or Mr Phibbs have to go with me. I do not mind my father," the boy admitted, "but Emily and Mr Phibbs are tedious company."
"What if I were to join you?" Helena asked. "Do you think your father would object?"
"He never forbade it," Jeremy said.
Helena laughed. "This is not the same thing as allowing it," she said. "But I guess not much harm can be done if the two of us put on some warm clothes and go and build a snowman or have a snowball fight in the park. What do you say?"
"That would be capital," Jeremy exclaimed, and ran back upstairs to fetch his overcoat. On his way he met his father who, having just got up, made his way downstairs. With an amused smile Mr Davies let his son pass and entered the breakfast room, where he found Helena.
"Good morning, Miss Erpingham," he said, smilingly.
Helena returned the greeting and announced that, if Mr Davies had no objection, she would go to the park with Jeremy.
"So this was why he nearly ran me over on the stairs," Mr Davies said.
"I hope you do not mind my making a decision before I had the chance to ask you, sir," Helena continued. "But Jeremy seemed so eager to go out, and I thought there would not be any harm in it."
"There is not, Miss Erpingham. What are you going to do in the park, may I ask?"
Helena laughed. "I promised Jeremy a snowball fight, so I suppose I am in for it."
Mr Davies smiled. "Sounds tempting," he said. "Is this some personal feud of my son and yours or may one join in?"
"I do not see any reason why you should not, sir," Helena said encouragingly.
"Fine. If you will be so kind as to hold back my son until I am dressed fit for the adventure, Miss Erpingham, I shall gladly come with you."
Helena nodded assent, and Mr Davies left her alone in the breakfast parlour.
A quarter of an hour later, they all set out into the direction of the park. Jeremy was running ahead of them, finding it too hard to restrain himself any longer, and once they had passed through the park gates he received them with a shower of snowballs. Mr Davies picked up a handful of snow, and began to defend himself valiantly. Helena, too, took an active part in the battle and, for a couple of minutes, quite forgot that she was no longer a child. She was back on the grounds of Erpingham Hall and playing with her childhood friends.
A couple of boys had come towards them and had joined the sport. Mr Davies, recollecting himself, left the group of boys and leaned on a tree, watching his son play. He was a bit out of breath, but looked happier than Helena had ever seen him before.
"The exercise seems to have a good effect on you, Mr Davies," she said, absenting herself from the group of boys and walking towards Mr Davies. She took off her wet gloves and rubbed her hands together.
"Are you cold?" Mr Davies asked with a concerned look. "I will call Jeremy and we shall return home."
"Oh, do not spoil his fun just yet," Helena begged. "I am not in the least cold – when I was a little girl, I used to stay outside in such weather all the time without getting as much as a cold. Let him play for a while! He meets with other children so rarely!"
"Unfortunately," Mr Davies said, quietly. After a short pause, he said, "This reminds me of the snowball fights we used to have at home when we were children – my brother, some of the stable lads and me. What fun we had!" He laughed quietly.
"Did your sister take part as well?" Helena asked.
"Emma? No, she did not. She was too much of a little lady to do such a thing – on the contrary, whenever she saw us, she used to report it to my father. She was not very successful, however, my father was convinced that boys would be boys in all circumstances. He simply told us not to keep the stable lads from their duty, that was all."
"This sounds as if you had a happy childhood, sir."
"Oh yes, I had. I sometimes feel I should move to the country for Jeremy's sake. In the country, there is so much to do for a child – here, in town, I can hardly let him go out by himself. Why, back home in Wiltshire we used to go fishing at dawn and not come back before nightfall, and no one ever worried about us. I think I shall send Jeremy to my brother's in spring. He will be quite happy with his cousins, I believe."
"Does your brother have many children?"
"Four sons. As fine a set of boys as one will ever see," Mr Davies replied with evident pride.
"Four sons!" Helena exclaimed. "Mrs Davies will have a hard time restraining their temperament, I am sure."
"I believe so, yes. But my sister-in-law is a very down-to-earth person, not at all prone to nervous complaints, and rules the household with an iron fist. The sort of woman both my brother and his sons need." Mr Davies laughed pleasantly.
Helena shivered. It was getting cold by now, and she longed to go back home, but she did not want to ruin Jeremy's morning. Yet, Mr Davies had noticed her shudder.
"You are cold, Miss Erpingham," he said softly and began to unbutton his overcoat. "Here, take this," he said. "I will go and fetch Jeremy, and we will return home. A cup of tea or hot chocolate will soon set you to rights." He gently put his overcoat around Helena's shoulder and went off into the direction of the playing children. Jeremy, on realising what his father wanted, said goodbye to his new friends and ran towards him at once.
"What a brilliant idea this was, Miss Erpingham," he exclaimed. "I wish it would snow every day! Father, don't you think so, too? Miss Erpingham, you do look funny wearing my father's coat. Are you very cold?"
Helena shook her head, smilingly. "But I do not mind our going home now," she said. Jeremy pouted for a moment, but listened to his father's reasoning and agreed that they should return to Pulteney Street, where, by now, a nice cup of hot chocolate would be waiting for them.
It was not before the New Year had begun that Helena was finally at leisure to spend a whole afternoon in Flora Mackay's company. Old friends of the late Mr Montagu's had arrived in Bath, and Mrs Montagu had decided to call on them, accompanied by her niece, Mrs Howard, whom they had particularly wished to see. So, Helena was graciously allowed to "visit Miss Mackay, if she had to", and Helena made haste to do so before Mrs Montagu would change her mind.
For a comfortable half-hour they were seated next to the window in Molland's, watching the passers-by and commenting on them and their attire whenever it was especially ridiculous. In spite of being such a kind-hearted person, Flora had a sharp tongue and was not afraid to use it for the entertainment of her friends. After a while, however, their conversation turned to the more gratifying subject of Flora's marriage, which was to take place the day after the next.
"Are you very nervous?" Helena asked.
"Sometimes I am, sometimes I am not," Flora admitted. "It depends on whether there is someone around to calm me or not. Please do not get me wrong – Mr Carmichael is the best of men, and the thought that I will be married to him shortly does make me very happy, yet I feel that this is going to be such a change…" She sighed. "I am not so much afraid of the wedding," she continued, "but of the years and years after that. I wonder whether I will be able to make my husband happy, or whether I shall bore him after the first couple of weeks."
"I can assure you that life with you cannot be boring," Helena said with an encouraging smile. "As Mr Carmichael well knows, I am certain. He looks like the sort of man who would not attach himself to anyone without giving the matter some thought beforehand. I am convinced that Mr Carmichael would not have offered for you, had he not been certain that he needed you to be happy."
"I hope you are right," Flora sighed. "You know what I am really looking forward to? Our wedding tour – Mr Carmichael will take me to London. I have never seen London before. I suppose you have."
"Yes, I was in London a couple of times," Helena replied. "It is not far from my home, and my father spent a great deal of time there. It would have been better for us if he had not." For a moment, Helena thought bitterly of her father's "friends", none of whom had ever called on his family after his death, apart from those wishing to collect the money he had owed them. "Be sure to make the most of it, Flora. London will provide you with ample sources of amusement for weeks."
"Too bad you cannot join us."
Helena laughed. "I'd rather not hear what Mr Carmichael would have to say on that matter if I did," she said. "Has anyone ever heard of a young wife taking one of her friends with her on her wedding tour? I would be in everyone's way, certainly."
"I know, it was a foolish notion." Flora sighed. "How long are you going to stay in Bath, Helena?"
"As long as Mrs Montagu stays here as well," Helena replied. "I do not know when she means to return to Newark House."
"I hope you will still be here when I come back from London," Flora said. "I have really grown fond of your company, you must know. I prefer it to everyone else's. Apart from Mr Carmichael's, of course." Flora laughed.
"I cannot make any promises, as I said," Helena answered. "Whenever Mrs Montagu decides that she is sick of Bath and returns to her home, I will have to follow her."
The day of the wedding soon arrived, and on getting up Helena was happy to see what a radiant day it was. It was chilly, no doubt, but the cold air made the scenery even fresher than usual. Mr Davies had agreed to take Helena to the Mackays' lodgings before he would join his friend Carmichael at his house in George Street.
"I need to make sure that he turns up at the wedding," he said with a grin.
"I am quite certain that Mr Carmichael will be punctual," Helena replied. "After all, he has been waiting for this event for years!"
"Ah, Miss Erpingham, you do not know Carmichael well enough," Mr Davies said. "You forget his profession. All we need for him to postpone the wedding is a patient asking for his assistance."
"What can be done to prevent this," Helena asked.
"I will try my best, Miss Erpingham. Your duty will be to keep the bride in good humour if he should be late despite my efforts."
Helena laughed. "I will do my best, sir," she said.
On arriving at the Mackays' lodgings, Helena was taken to Flora's room, where Mrs Mackay's maid was adding some finishing touches to the bride's apparel. Flora looked lovely, and a great deal of her loveliness could be attributed to the happy smile on her face. Her dress was very elegant, yet it was simple – Flora did not care too much for finery. Her one concession to fashion was her pelisse – an exquisite garment trimmed with fur – and a matching bonnet.
"So, how do I look?" Flora asked Helena. "Can I show my face at St Swithin's, what do you think?"
Helena smiled. "Next to you, I will look just like the wallflower that I am," she said.
"Do not say such a thing. You know you are not a wallflower. I can name at least one gentleman who finds you very attractive. – There now, I am finished."
Mrs Mackay looked at her daughter fondly, fully approving of her appearance, and led her downstairs, where the gentlemen of the family were already waiting for the ladies. The bride's father had been worried, telling his son that they would most likely be late for the ceremony, while the younger Mr Mackay had done his best to assure his father that everything would be fine in the end. He greeted Helena with an affable smile, but as she was attending to Flora she did not have the time to take much notice of him.
Mr Davies was waiting at the entrance of St Swithin's as they arrived at the church. He handed the bride a bouquet of flowers and, after complimenting her on her looks, remarked that Mr Carmichael was indeed a lucky man.
"So you managed to get him here on time, Mr Davies," Helena asked teasingly.
"Quite so," Mr Davies said, grinning. "At the moment, he is busy preparing himself for the ceremony. I am afraid his courage is about to fail him. You have arrived just in time, Miss Mackay. Your presence will make him regain his resolve."
Flora gave Mr Davies a grateful smile, but one could see that she, too, was nervous.
There were not many guests at the ceremony, apart from the bride's family and some of the bridegroom's friends. As soon as the wedding ceremony was over, family and friends were invited to a breakfast at the young couple's house in George Street. An enormous wedding cake was waiting for the bridal couple and wedding guests upon their arrival. Both Mr and Mrs Carmichael's anxiety had by now vanished. They were able to receive their friends' felicitations with perfect ease, and it was difficult to determine which one of them looked happier. Helena felt perfectly contented celebrating with her friends, and only became aware of how much time she had passed in their company when she had a look at the clock on the mantelpiece after the young couple had left, and realised that she should have been back in Pulteney Street nearly an hour ago. Mrs Montagu would be enraged at her tardiness.
She quickly asked a servant for her coat and bonnet, to leave without further delay. Just as she was adjusting her bonnet in front of the mirror in the hallway, young Mr Mackay came out of the drawing room – no doubt in search of her.
"You are not going to leave yet, Miss Erpingham," he said, looking surprised.
"I have to," Helena said. "I promised Mrs Montagu to be back at two o'clock."
Mr Mackay cast a quick glance at his pocket-watch. "You are indeed a bit late, Miss Erpingham," he said calmly. "But certainly Mrs Montagu will make allowances considering today's events. You need not worry."
"Even if she should make allowances, which I do not expect in the least, she will be seriously put out by now," Helena said. "Really, sir, I could not be at ease staying here any longer."
Mr Mackay sighed. "Very well then," he said. "With your permission, Miss Erpingham, I will see you home."
"This is very kind of you, sir, but not at all necessary. I can walk by myself – it is not so very far, after all."
"It may not be necessary, Miss Erpingham, but I would very much like to," Mr Mackay said, and asked the maidservant to bring him his coat and hat. "Besides, I might be of assistance when Mrs Montagu is very angry with you. I am fully prepared to take the blame for your belatedness, Miss Erpingham."
Helena did not offer any more resistance to Mr Mackay's suggestion, and so they set off towards Pulteney Street together.
"How did you like the wedding, Miss Erpingham," he asked.
"I think Mr and Mrs Carmichael will be very happy together," Helena said warmly. "They were made for each other."
A faint smile crossed Mr Mackay's face. "Funny you should say that," he said. "Do you believe in such a thing? People being made for each other?"
"I do not know – I guess it was more of a commonplace remark than an expression of any belief of mine," Helena said, smilingly. "People say such things to indicate a perfect match."
Mr Mackay nodded. "I do think my sister and Carmichael will do very well with each other. – Miss Erpingham, my sister's wedding has made me make up my mind on a very important subject, and I do not want to leave Bath before this is settled." He sounded earnest, and determined. Helena decided to remain silent – she had a suspicion concerning what Mr Mackay was going to say, but could not think of any means to stop him.
"I have been thinking a great deal," he continued. "I know that, under normal circumstances, I would not even be worth your notice, Miss Erpingham. I am far beneath your situation in life as it was – still, my offer is sincere, Miss Erpingham, and I hope you will not blame me for my impertinence. During my stay in Bath, I have grown very fond of you, and I wanted to ask you to become my wife." He gave Helena an entreating look. "I do not mean to press you for an answer. You have all the time in the world to consider my proposal. I will wait."
"Mr Mackay," Helena said quietly, "I am honoured, but…I cannot accept your offer. I am very sorry to disappoint you, and I hope I am not giving you too much pain, but believe me, sir, we would not suit. I do like and respect you as a friend, but my feelings for you would never go any further than that."
Mr Mackay sighed. "I cannot say I did not expect such an answer," he said. "I knew it was highly unlikely that you would accept me, yet I did not want to lose you simply because I dared not ask you. I hope you can forgive me, Miss Erpingham. I promise I will not bother you again."
Helena wanted to say something to cheer him up, but she felt that anything she said might simply revive his hope and would therefore be a greater act of cruelty than silence.
Meanwhile, they had arrived in front of Mr Davies's house in Pulteney Street, and Mr Mackay took his leave. "I shall be off to Edinburgh tomorrow," he said. "Now that my sister is married and gone, nothing is left to keep me in Bath." He smiled sadly. "Should you ever come to Edinburgh, Miss Erpingham, remember that you have friends there," he said, took her hand and kissed it. "Good bye, Miss Erpingham."
"Good bye, Mr Mackay," Helena said, swallowing her tears. She felt so sorry for Mr Mackay she nearly cried. In order to save her face, Helena turned away from him and went into the house without further ado.
She did not really listen to Mrs Montagu's ensuing sermon, her abuse and her threats to dismiss her. The moment Mrs Montagu had finished her reprimand, Helena left her alone and went to her room. There, she gave way to her tears and spent some time crying, when suddenly there was a knock at the door.
"Miss Erpingham, may I come in?" It was Jeremy.
While Helena was still trying to find an excuse to keep the boy out, the door opened and he entered the room.
"What is the matter, Miss Erpingham? Have you been crying?" Jeremy asked. "I heard a strange noise in your room and thought I'd better look in on you. Are you ill?"
Despite her tears, Helena had to smile. The boy sounded so genuinely worried about her.
"No, I am not ill, Jeremy," she said. "Just a bit unhappy – but it will pass."
Jeremy nodded, as if he understood. "I am unhappy, too, sometimes," he said. "It usually goes away. Shall I get Mephisto? He might cheer you up, you know. I might even show you the trick with the mustard – oh no, I cannot, I promised my father not to try that one again."
"The trick with the mustard?" Helena asked, by now having dried her tears.
Jeremy told her the story how he had smeared the cat with mustard and how the poor animal had reacted on the assault. When the boy left Helena's room, there were tears in her eyes again – only this time they were tears of laughter.
It took Helena some time to prepare for dinner that evening. Her eyes were red and swollen, and she did not want to provoke any questions from either her host or Mrs Montagu. Mrs Montagu would, perhaps, assume that she had cried because of the rebuke she had given her in the afternoon, and would not ask any questions. Mr Davies, however, being of the same helpful disposition as his son, might ask questions and perhaps even guess at the real cause of her tears, and Helena did not want him to. She hoped Jeremy would keep quiet on the subject.
She should not have worried. Jeremy arrived at the dinner table as always when there were only few guests present, but he did not talk much. Whenever his father asked him something concerning his lessons, Jeremy gave him short, monosyllabic answers. He had had to learn a poem by heart, and when Mr Davies expressed his wish to hear the poem, Jeremy said it, but rather half-heartedly.
Helena noted that Jeremy did not eat much, either, which worried her. Usually, Jeremy had a healthy appetite, but tonight he not only ate very slowly but also refused to have some dessert – a certain sign that something was wrong, in Helena's opinion. She gave Mr Davies a telling look when Jeremy said that he did not want any pudding, but Mr Davies did not seem to notice.
After dinner, Jeremy accompanied Helena and Mrs Montagu to the drawing room. Mrs Montagu was seated comfortably in front of the fireplace, and Helena sat on the sofa with Jeremy.
"Is there anything wrong with you," she asked the boy. "You did not seem to be very hungry tonight."
"Well, I was hungry," Jeremy admitted. "But something is wrong with my stomach, I feel a trifle queasy. That is why I did not eat any dessert, even though I would have liked it so much."
"I am certain Cook will keep something aside for you," Helena said encouragingly. "You should go to bed soon. Tomorrow you will feel better."
Jeremy nodded, and went to bed the moment his father joined the ladies in the drawing room.
During the night, Helena was woken by Emily Hunter, the nursemaid, who was banging frantically at her door.
"Please, help me, Miss, I do not know what to do," she said desperately. "Something is wrong with Master Jeremy!"
Quickly, Helena got out of bed and put on her dressing gown. She followed Emily to Jeremy's room and found the boy lying in bed, looking at her with big, feverish eyes without really taking in what was happening. Helena touched his forehead. It was hot.
"How long has this been going on, Emily?" she asked the nursemaid, trying to sound calm.
"He went to bed early tonight," Emily said. "I found nothing wrong with that, but then he woke up, and he was sick – and then he asked for some water, which I gave him, and he complained about a sore throat… oh, what am I to do?"
"There is only one thing to do, Emily. We need to get a doctor here, quickly. Run to Mr Carmichael's…" That moment it dawned on Helena that Mr Carmichael would not be able to attend to Jeremy. Mr Carmichael was, by now, on his way to London with his bride.
"Mr Carmichael is not at home," she said. "Emily, do you know any other physicians in the vicinity? Someone who is acquainted with Mr Davies and likely to come here, even at this time of night?"
"Well, there is Mr Jarrett," Emily said. "He is rather old, though."
"Never mind, Mr Jarrett will do," Helena said quickly. "Get one of the footmen to fetch him, and come back here again. And wake Mr Davies – I am afraid this is serious. Oh, I do hope I am mistaken!"
A couple of minutes seemed like hours to Philip as he was waiting for Mr Jarrett to talk to him. Emily Hunter had woken him, and had told him that Jeremy was ill and that the doctor had been sent for. Philip blamed himself for not having seen it coming – how could he, who had always been alarmed by the slightest sign of illness in his son, have not noticed how poorly Jeremy was?
At last, Mr Jarrett entered the library, looking at him gravely.
"I am afraid I am the bearer of bad news, sir," he said. Philip turned pale. "It is serious, then," he said anxiously.
"It is. Sir, I have reason to believe that your son is suffering from scarlet fever. There have been several cases of scarlet fever lately, and the symptoms were always similar."
Philip nodded. "Scarlet fever. It is dangerous, is it not?"
"There can be complications, Mr Davies, which can have serious effects. We need to keep a close watch on the patient, and whenever the slightest sign of such a complication occurs…
I need not tell you, sir, that your household will be quarantined. The very last thing Bath needs is an epidemic. Perhaps it would be wise to inquire among your servants who has had scarlet fever and who has not. Those who have not had it should keep away from your son – scarlet fever is highly contagious. Those who have had scarlet fever are quite safe."
Philip nodded. "I will instruct the housekeeper accordingly," he said. "Can you tell me – can you tell me how dangerous scarlet fever really is? I want to know the truth."
"The most dangerous part of it is the fever," Mr Jarrett said. "It can get pretty high. Besides, there are complications, as I said, which can be rather dangerous, too."
"At times, yes."
Although Philip had half expected this answer, really hearing it came as a shock.
"Thank you for your frankness," he said, desperately trying to look calm.
Mr Jarrett then rose, and after promising to look in on the patient the next morning he left. Philip decided to go and sit up with Jeremy – sleep was not to be thought of.
Philip did not know how long he had been sitting next to his son's bed, watching his troubled sleep, when the door opened and Miss Erpingham entered the room.
Philip rose from his seat. "Miss Erpingham," he said. "You should not be here!"
"You know," Miss Erpingham replied, putting a basin of water and a towel onto the table, "I rather think I should. It is scarlet fever, am I right?"
"I knew it would be," Miss Erpingham said. "The moment I saw Jeremy and heard what had happened, I knew it. I hoped I would be proven wrong, but I was not. You know, Mr Davies, I am well acquainted with the fever. I had it myself when I was about Jeremy's age – no, I must have been younger. Both my brothers had it, too, and I helped my mother nurse them. So, if you want to send me away, I will do as you tell me, but I really want to help. It is one way for me to repay the kindness that both you and Jeremy have shown me during my stay here."
"I only believed," Philip tried to explain, "that you had not had scarlet fever before, and I did not want you to fall ill, Miss Erpingham."
"There is no need to worry about me," Miss Erpingham replied. Then she looked at Jeremy. "He is asleep," she said, quietly. "So perhaps we ought to discuss this matter outside – I do not want him to wake up. He needs all the rest he can get."
Philip nodded, and held the door open for Miss Erpingham to leave the room. Outside, she said, "Emily Hunter has never had scarlet fever. I asked her. So I assumed it would be better for me to take over from her – I hope you will forgive my boldness. I know I am quite an imperious creature at times." She smiled apologetically. "I know of course that the decision is up to you, Mr Davies."
"The decision in this case, I am afraid, is up to my aunt, Miss Erpingham," Philip replied. "You are her companion."
"Certainly she can have no objection?" Miss Erpingham said. "I will be there for her whenever she needs me."
"I am afraid my aunt will not agree, Miss Erpingham, but I will ask her anyway." Philip smiled. "I will ask for her permission first thing tomorrow. You do not know how glad I am to have you here." He paused, recollecting that, perhaps, this might be misunderstood. "At times like this, I mean," he added weakly.
"And I am glad to be of use, Mr Davies," Miss Erpingham replied. "I think we ought to let Jeremy sleep – he must be quite exhausted. Should I sit up with him?"
"No, you need not, Miss Erpingham. I will do so," Philip said. "Is there anything you want me to do?"
Miss Erpingham shook her head. "Not as long as he is asleep," she said. "There is not much we can do anyway, apart from trying to make things easier for him. You may need to keep a close watch on his temperature – we might have to do something about it. I was planning to apply some cold compresses to his legs, that works wonders usually. But as long as he is asleep, I will leave him alone. If he should wake up and get restless, Mr Davies, do not hesitate to call me. I shall be in my room."
Philip nodded. "I do not know how to thank you properly, Miss Erpingham," he said.
"Then do not," she said, smiling. "I have not done anything yet to deserve any thanks of yours."
Philip watched her disappear in her room, and then went back into Jeremy's. The boy was still asleep, but had tossed off the blankets that had covered him. Philip took them and tucked his son in. Then he sat down next to the bed, and, while closely observing every movement of Jeremy's, reflected on the situation.
So far, Jeremy had always been blessed with a sound constitution, and though his pranks had caused his father some uneasiness, his health had not. Apart from some bruises and scratches obtained while exploring his uncle's grounds or Sydney Gardens and the occasional cough and runny nose, nothing had ever been wrong with Jeremy. Still, Philip had always been alert – probably because he feared losing Jeremy more than anything else. Louisa's death had made him a nervous wreck, apparently.
Suddenly, Jeremy uttered a moan and sat up in his bed, wildly staring ahead of him. He panted as if he had been running, and was obviously unaware of his surroundings.
"What is it," Philip asked anxiously, touching the boy's arm to attract his attention. Jeremy gave a start and looked at his father, without a sign of recognition.
"Thirsty," he said, in a strange, hoarse voice. "Wanna drink."
Philip got up, filled a glass with water and gave it to his son, who drank greedily. "That's better," Jeremy sighed and lay back on his pillow. "I'm dizzy….headache, too." He squinted at Philip. "Is that you, Papa?"
Jeremy had stopped calling his father Papa when his tutor had told him that only girls did so.
"Yes, it is me," Philip said calmly, although he felt anything but calm. The boy was clearly delirious – the fever was probably worse than he had expected. For a moment, Philip considered waking Miss Erpingham, but then he decided against it. It was kind enough of her to want to nurse Jeremy during the day. It was a blessing to have her here….for a moment, Philip cherished the mental image of Miss Erpingham nursing his son. Then he forbade himself to pursue that train of thought any further. His son was ill, and Jeremy's illness ought to be of foremost importance to him. There was no room for daydreaming – he had no right to do so while Jeremy was sick.
Jeremy had meanwhile closed his eyes, and drifted off to sleep again. Philip, after touching his forehead, felt persuaded that he ought to do something to relieve his suffering, and was wondering what he ought to do when his eyes fell on the basin of water and the towel Miss Erpingham had left on the table. It would probably not do any harm to place a compress on Jeremy's forehead, Philip thought and went to prepare it. In passing the fireplace, he looked at the clock on the mantelpiece and sighed. This was going to be a long night.
Helena had been awake long after she had gone back to her room, expecting to be summoned to Jeremy's room any moment. But as time had passed and no one had demanded her presence in the sick-room, she had finally fallen asleep, and awoke early in the morning feeling refreshed and ready to nurse the poor boy.
She got up, dressed herself in one of her plainest gowns, and went to the sick-chamber immediately. As she entered the room, Mr Davies rose from his seat.
"Good morning, Miss Erpingham," he said. "Have you had breakfast yet?"
"No, I have not," Helena said. "I do not need any breakfast. But you, sir, if you permit my saying so, are in dire need of some sleep."
"So I am," Mr Davies admitted.
"How is the patient?" Helena asked. "Did he sleep tolerably well?"
"He did, although he woke up several times – and his temperature worries me excessively. I do hope Mr Jarrett means to come soon."
"He will," Helena said. "I am sure he will. Have you tried those leg compresses I have told you about?"
"No, Miss Erpingham, I have not. To be honest, I had no idea how to go about it. I am afraid I am not much use in the sickroom."
"Well, you have put a compress on his forehead," Helena said. "Which was fine – you have done very well, on the whole."
"Thank you, Miss Erpingham," Mr Davies said, with a sad smile. "I did my best."
"Oh, I did not mean to hurt you," Helena said.
"You did not." Mr Davies replied, and opened the door. "I will ask Mrs Doyle to send up some breakfast for you and Jeremy – should he want any."
"That is very kind of you, sir," Helena said, and turned to the patient.
When one of the maids knocked at the door and handed her the breakfast tray, Helena had already washed the patient, changed his nightshirt and applied some compresses to Jeremy's legs. He had woken up and smiled at her, but Helena was not so certain whether he had recognised her. She hoped the doctor would arrive soon and tell her how to proceed. She racked her brains to remember the contents of her mother's special herbal tea she had given her brothers – there had been one tea for the fever, and another one to cure a sore throat. Only, which was which, and what exactly had been in it?
In the meantime, she gave Jeremy some tea and tried to make him swallow some porridge. He did swallow a bit, but soon protested, saying that his throat hurt and that he would not eat any more.
When Mr Jarrett arrived, Jeremy was asleep again. The doctor carefully examined the boy and then announced that his previous diagnosis had been correct.
"You see that rash that is developing on the boy's neck, ma'am?" he asked Helena. She nodded.
"Typical sign of scarlet fever, that is…and his tongue. Look at his tongue. As clear a case of scarlet fever as one can ever see. Have you had scarlet fever, ma'am?"
"Yes, I have," Helena said.
"Are you sure? Scarlet fever is bad enough in a child, but when grown-ups suffer from it, it can be worse."
"I am sure, Mr Jarrett," Helena said, and asked what she could do to help the patient.
"Not much." Mr Jarrett said. "You will have to watch his temperature, and try to keep it as low as possible – you have done so already, I can see. Good work. But we will have to let the illness take its due course, and hope and pray. I will look in on the patient again in the evening."
Having said that, he left Helena to her devices. Helena sat down next to the bed with a book in her hand, determined not to leave her post.
After having washed and changed his clothes, Philip went downstairs to have some breakfast before trying to get some sleep. He had made his reckoning without his aunt, however.
The moment he entered the breakfast parlour, she demanded to know whether the rumours that the child was ill were true.
"Unfortunately, yes," Philip said. "Jeremy suffers from scarlet fever, and we are quarantined."
"Quarantined? Did you say quarantined? Am I to be locked up in this house for I do not know how many weeks?" his aunt exclaimed. "Not even you can expect that from me!"
"I do not expect you to stay, aunt, but I do hope you will," Philip said wearily. "There is no danger as long as you stay away from Jeremy."
"I will stay away from him, do not worry," Aunt Montagu said determinedly. "Now where is Miss Erpingham? What does she mean by staying in bed so long?"
Philip braced himself for a long and heated discussion.
"Miss Erpingham is with Jeremy," he said. "She has offered to nurse him, and since there is no one in the house as capable as she, I have been very glad to accept her offer – provided that you allow her to nurse him, that is."
"Why on earth should I do that?" Aunt Montagu demanded. "Not only am I to stay in this house without being able to stir outside, am I now to stay here without my companion? I cannot possibly do without her."
"I promise you will not be bored, Aunt," Philip said. "I will see to that. Mrs Doyle…"
"Mrs Doyle is your housekeeper, and will have other things to do than providing me with amusement," Aunt Montagu said.
"I am here, too," Philip said. "Please, Aunt, if Miss Erpingham cannot look after Jeremy, I do not know what to do. You know those paid nurses, do you not? The ones that are drunk by lunchtime, reeking of gin, and not bothering with their patients at all. You cannot expect me to leave Jeremy in the care of such a person! Look at Miss Erpingham instead, Aunt! You cannot deny that I can place absolute trust on her!"
Aunt Montagu gave him a sharp look. "Have you ever considered that Miss Erpingham might have ulterior motives for offering her help?" she asked. "A woman in her position will do anything to make you feel beholden to her. She knows the boy needs a mother, and is perfectly ready to take that place."
Philip felt the colour rise to his cheeks. He could not believe his aunt could be so mean as to speak ill of Miss Erpingham in her absence – a young woman who had done her duty by her so faithfully, without ever saying a word about her employer's harsh treatment.
"I do not care about her motives," he said. "As long as she looks after Jeremy and treats him as kindly as she has always done, everything will be fine. I am not so green as to fall for the first scheming female that sets her cap at me, aunt, and I ask you to keep your good advice to yourself – for I know a scheming female when I see one, and Miss Erpingham is not one of that sort."
"It is most unfortunate that we cannot leave any more," Aunt Montagu said stiffly, "or I would pack up at once and move away from here. Very well, let Miss Erpingham do as she pleases, but tell her that I expect her to bear me company whenever I need her."
"You will not need her company, Aunt, I told you so before," Philip said. "I will keep you sufficiently entertained."
The butler brought in the post.
"You may start right now," Aunt Montagu said, "by reading my letters to me. I am afraid I have forgotten my spectacles in my room upstairs."
With a sigh, Philip opened the first of his aunt's letters and started reading it aloud.
The following week, Helena spent most of her time in Jeremy's room. She sat up with him, anxiously watching him, applying cold compresses, and giving him the herbal tea her mother had given her brothers in a similar situation.
But whatever she did, it was to no avail – Jeremy's condition, although it did not get worse, did not improve either. Mr Jarrett came twice every day, examining the patient thoroughly and growing more worried every time he saw Jeremy.
Helena suspected that he did not share his apprehensions with Mr Davies, but she understood why he did not. Mr Davies had looked in on Jeremy regularly, and had taken turns with Helena to look after the boy. It was obvious that he worried about Jeremy, and it would be cruel to tell him that – perhaps – his efforts did not have the desired effect.
One evening, however, Mr Davies was there when Mr Jarrett examined the patient, and noticed the physician's worried expression.
"What is the matter, Mr Jarrett?" he asked anxiously.
Mr Jarrett sighed. "I am afraid, Mr Davies, that I have bad news for you," he said. "Your son's state is worse than I had imagined before. Generally, the fever subsides within five or six days – but your son's condition has not changed in the least. His temperature has stayed the same for the past seven days, and there are no signs of an improvement. I am afraid we must prepare for the worst."
Mr Davies blanched. "No," he whispered. "This cannot be true. Jarrett, there must be something you can do for him – there certainly is!"
He was desperately trying to appear calm, but Helena noticed how agitated he really was. She wished she could put her arms around him to comfort him.
"I am afraid there is not," Mr Jarrett said. "If the fever does not subside until tomorrow evening at the latest, sir, I fear the worst will happen."
"The fever will subside," Mr Davies said. "I know it will. What do you say, Miss Erpingham?" He looked at Helena pleadingly. The anguish in his eyes nearly made her cry.
"I will do my best," she said quietly. "There is always hope, you know."
"So they say," Mr Davies said, his voice cracking. "Usually when the situation is really hopeless."
"Situations are never hopeless, Mr Davies," Helena said. "Only people are."
He looked as if he wanted to say something in answer to that, but seemed to change his mind. "I will stay with Jeremy for the night," he said, firmly.
"You did so last night, sir, and the better part of this afternoon, too. Do you not think it might get too much?" Helena asked.
He shook his head. "Nothing I do for my son can ever be too much," he said. "Besides," he added, with a bitter laugh, "who knows how long I may have the chance to be with him? – What can I do, Jarrett?"
"No more than what you have been doing all this time, sir," Mr Jarrett replied.
"Hope and pray. I see," Mr Davies answered spitefully. "It is what you seem to be good at, at least."
"I think it would be best if you left everything to Miss Erpingham," Mr Jarrett said, ignoring Mr Davies's vicious remark. "She has done excellent work so far, and will certainly go on doing so."
"I know," Mr Davies said, giving Helena a look she could not quite fathom. "I am deeply in your debt, Miss Erpingham – I do not know how I could ever repay you."
"I never expected you to," Helena said meekly.
Mr Jarrett took his leave, instructing Mr Davies to send for him if anything happened during the night. Helena conducted the doctor downstairs and let him out. As she turned to go back to Jeremy's room, the drawing room door opened and Mrs Montagu came out.
"May I know where everybody is," she demanded. "I thought there would always be someone to spend some time with me? This is what my nephew told me, and it was my stipulation for giving my consent for you to nurse Jeremy."
"Mr Jarrett was just here to visit the patient," Helena said quietly. "He is rather worried, so, Mrs Montagu, you cannot blame Mr Davies for forgetting about you for a moment."
"I cannot blame him, perhaps, but I certainly can blame you," Mrs Montagu snapped. "I am not going to dine on my own, do you understand?"
"No, you will not, Mrs Montagu," Helena said. "I will join you at dinner. One cannot expect Mr Davies to be cheerful company tonight." She, too, would not be very amusing, Helena thought, and her heart grew heavy at the thought of Jeremy. "If you will excuse me, Madam, I will dress for dinner."
With a curt nod, Mrs Montagu dismissed Helena and went back into the drawing room. Before going to her room to change her dress, Helena returned to Jeremy's room to tell Mr Davies that she would dine with his aunt.
"You are taking too much on yourself, Miss Erpingham," he said.
"It is my duty to be Mrs Montagu's companion, and I have been neglecting that duty lately," Helena said. "I will come back when Mrs Montagu retires, if you do not mind."
"When did you last have a good night's sleep, Miss Erpingham?" Mr Davies asked her, looking at her inquisitively.
"I cannot remember right now," Helena said with a short laugh.
"I thought so," Mr Davies said. "You should try to get some rest, Miss Erpingham. You have heard Mr Jarrett – there is not much we can do anyway, so I think it will be enough if I stay with Jeremy."
Helena shook her head. "I will come back when Mrs Montagu goes to bed," she said resolutely and left the room.
The dinner with Mrs Montagu was an awkward affair. Mrs Montagu did most of the talking; hinting at young women who did not know their place and refused to acknowledge what was due to their employers. Helena did not say much in reply to that, she let Mrs Montagu ramble on and hoped that the evening would soon be over. A week in the sickroom tending to Jeremy had not fatigued her half as much as this single evening in Mrs Montagu's company did.
After dinner, Mrs Montagu wished Helena to read to her, and she did so willingly, though her heart was not in it. Her thoughts were with Mr Davies and Jeremy all the time, and when, finally, Mrs Montagu announced that she was tired and would go to bed, Helena was glad to hear it.
The moment Mrs Montagu had disappeared in her room, Helena dashed upstairs to Jeremy's. Mr Davies was sitting next to the boy's bed and greeted her with a faint smile.
"How has he been doing?" Helena asked, breathlessly.
"I hope I am not deluding myself, Miss Erpingham," Mr Davies said, "but I believe he is not quite as feverish as he was. Yet I dare not hope…what do you say?"
Helena felt the boy's forehead and counted his pulse. "There may be a slight improvement," she said, carefully. "But we must not put too much hope into it – it may well be that we only perceive what we wish to see. We will know more in an hour or two, perhaps. – Did you have some dinner, sir?"
"Mrs Doyle sent me some morsels, but I am afraid I have not done Cook the credit that is her due," Mr Davies said. "I do not know if that applies to you as well, but when I am anxious everything I eat tastes like sawdust."
"Oh, it does apply to me as well," Helena said and sat down next to Mr Davies.
"You really ought to try and get some sleep, Miss Erpingham," Mr Davies said, looking at her anxiously. "There is no need for you to wear yourself out."
"I will get some sleep when Jeremy feels better," Helena said, smilingly. "In the meantime, I will look after him and prevent his father from fretting too much." She got up, opened one of the cupboards and took out Jeremy's chessboard. "May I challenge you to a game, sir?" she asked.
"I will not be too much of an opponent tonight," Mr Davies said.
"Neither will I, sir, but it does not signify. We must do something to divert your thoughts, you know. I will not have you sitting around imagining all sorts of dreadful things."
With a courteous nod, Mr Davies complied with the scheme, and they started playing.
Time passed slowly, and after two games of chess this occupation palled. Helena got up again and touched Jeremy's hands. Just then, the boy opened his eyes and smiled at her.
"Miss Erpingham," he whispered sleepily. "What are you doing here? Where's Emily?"
For the first time, Jeremy seemed to take in what was happening around him.
With a triumphant smile, Helena turned to Mr Davies. "Did I not tell you there was always hope?" she asked.
"You did," he answered, hurrying to Jeremy's side. "I was a fool not to believe it."
In the following days, Jeremy's health improved slowly, but steadily. He was still weak and feverish, but the worst part of his illness was behind him. Helena continued to take turns with Mr Davies, and she stayed with Jeremy whenever she could.
Mrs Montagu did not make things easy for her – the moment she had heard of Jeremy's improvement, she had insisted on Helena's company for most of the day. In her opinion, her companion had wasted too much time on the boy already, and should not forget what her station in life was. Luckily Mrs Montagu, out of sheer boredom, had adopted the habit of taking a nap every afternoon. So Helena was at leisure for two hours every day, hours which she spent in Jeremy's room. She wondered why Mr Davies, knowing his son to be safe, still insisted on remaining with them, even when it was not necessary. Jeremy showed clear signs of tedium, just like every boy on his way back to health did once the illness did not give him much pain any more. In order to entertain Jeremy, Mr Davies had promised to teach him to play chess – an endeavour for which he depended on Helena's help.
Jeremy was a keen learner, if only for the sake of "being able to beat his father".
"I would like to have one thing at which I am better than you are," he had said during his first lesson, and had turned to Helena. "Do you think I can be better at chess than my father, Miss Erpingham?"
"If you put your mind to it, I have no doubt," Helena had said smilingly.
"This is not much of a compliment to my playing skills," Mr Davies had complained.
"Why?" Helena had retorted. "I did not tell him how long it would take him to achieve his aim, did I?"
Their games of chess soon became a part of their daily routine – while Mrs Montagu went off to her room to have her afternoon sleep, her nephew and Helena were sitting together in Jeremy's room, Helena playing chess with Jeremy while Mr Davies advised the boy whenever he needed advice – an occasion which became rarer every day.
One day, Helena received a letter from Mrs Carmichael, telling her how happy she was, how much she enjoyed being in London, and how sorry she was to hear that Jeremy was ill.
You should have seen my husband when he received Mr Davies's letter that contained the news. He was wondering whether he should go back to Bath immediately, but I confess I dissuaded him. He will never be able to leave Bath without one or the other of his patients falling ill and needing his assistance, and Mr Jarrett was certainly up to the task of helping young Jeremy. I am a selfish creature, I know, and you may hate me for it, but I do want to enjoy my wedding tour for as long as I can, and I know once we return to Bath there will be no more honeymoon for us – not for a very long time, at least.
I have had news from my family as well. They have returned to Edinburgh and are in good health, although my brother is in low spirits – you can guess the reason why. He told me all about the last conversation he had with you, and though I feel very sorry for him I know you would not have rejected him without having a good reason for doing so. That said, I will touch the subject no more, you may rest assured.
Helena could not help but sigh in relief. She had worried what Mrs Carmichael's reaction on her refusal to marry Mr Mackay might be, and was glad to see that Mrs Carmichael did not resent it. Helena would have been sorry to lose such a friend.
Another letter for Helena arrived some days later, from her sister this time. Grace informed her that her uncle had finally arrived in England, and that he meant to stay in London for a while – six months at least.
We have not seen him yet, Helena, but he has sent us a most courteous letter, begging to be remembered to you and the boys. He wishes to meet all of us, but cannot do so before having settled down in London. I understand he has taken up residence in Berkeley Square. No doubt he will be able to do something for you and the boys – having no children of his own, what will he do with all his fortune?
Helena put the letter aside in disgust. Could Grace think of nothing else but her uncle's fortune? What right had she to suppose that her uncle would divide his fortune among his brother's children? What had they done to deserve such generosity on his part? Nothing at all – her father had hardly ever been in contact with his brother, and neither had they. How could they suppose that there was no one else entitled to Uncle Erpingham's fortune? Most of it was his wife's, anyway, so it would not be surprising if there were nephews and nieces on the other side of the Atlantic who were as much entitled to have it as they were, if not more so. Helena had never entertained any hopes as to an inheritance from her uncle, but apparently Grace had. Some people could never get enough.
After another week, Mr Jarrett announced that the patient was no longer a threat to other people's health, and therefore Emily Hunter could reassume her duty in the sickroom. This was the point when Mrs Montagu told Helena that now there would be no reason for her to nurse Jeremy any more.
"That maid has no more sense of duty than a cat," Mrs Montagu said. "I wonder why Philip does not dismiss her. What is the use of a nurse if she does not care for the boy whenever he falls ill? There is no room for such people in my house," she added with a pointed look at Helena which she understood only too well.
Sometimes she wondered why she still stayed with Mrs Montagu. There was nothing that kept her there, certainly. But then she realised that there was something – or someone – that made her stay in Bath. Mr Davies. He was everything she had ever wanted in a man – good-natured, gentle, generous, intelligent – and handsome, one could not deny it. Helena had to admit to herself that he had made a greater impression on her than she had been aware of. Her heartbeat quickened when he spoke to her, and her eyes inadvertently followed him whenever he was in the same room with her. She thoroughly enjoyed his company, and was certain that she would miss him sorely, were she to leave. Yet she was reluctant to acknowledge her love for him. Helena knew that nothing would ever come of it, and she had to be careful. If Mrs Montagu found out what she felt for Mr Davies, she would instantly dismiss her – or take her away from Bath. Besides, Mr Davies certainly had better options for marriage than her - being who he was, he could pick and choose among the finest ladies in Bath society, and would not have to fall back on his aunt's penniless companion. Helena reminded herself that she ought not to mistake Mr Davies's kindness for anything other but gratitude and – maybe – friendship. She ought to be content with that. So why was she not?
Even though Emily Hunter had resumed her duty with Jeremy, Philip spent as much time as possible with his son. Jeremy had complained that Emily's company was tedious, and though he was fond of Emily, he infinitely preferred his father to be with him. So Philip spent most of his afternoons in Jeremy's room, playing cards, chess or chequers and talking a great deal. Philip had always known that Jeremy was a bright child, but only now he fully realised Jeremy's intelligence. He was quick and perceptive, and sometimes asked Philip questions that startled him, questions that were not usually asked by children of Jeremy's age. Nevertheless Philip answered the questions honestly. He had noticed that Jeremy could see through him easily, and that there was no use trying to deceive him.
One afternoon, Jeremy suddenly said, "Did you ever hate me, Father?" He watched his father's reaction to the question closely, as if he could find the answer by looking at him. When Philip had regained his ability to speak, he said, "Why on earth should I hate you, Jeremy?"
"Because my mother died when I was born," Jeremy said quietly. "Geoffrey Halston said so the other day, or I would never have thought so myself. He said that you hated me, had always hated me, and had no fonder wish than to get rid of me. He said that was why you were going to send me to school."
"And you believed him?" Philip asked, now thoroughly upset.
"Not really," Jeremy said calmly. "That was why I hit him, you see. I could not bear hearing him talk of you in such a way."
"I think he deserved that black eye after all," Philip said. "Listen, Jeremy, it is a ghastly thing to say and, what is more, it is a blatant lie. Next time he says anything like that, you have my permission to box his ears as much as you like."
"I thought he was lying, at first," Jeremy said. "But then I thought, even though you might not hate me now, you might have hated me once. When I was little."
Philip looked at his son, aghast. What was he to say in answer to that? He remembered the moment when his mother had placed the baby in his arms, for the first time – at the same time telling him that he should prepare for the worst, that Louisa might not live through the night. The feeling of repulsion that had, for one moment, overcome him – until the baby in his arms had opened his eyes and had looked at him. Those had been Louisa's eyes … and how could he possibly hate something that was so much a part of her? From then on, Philip had regarded Jeremy as a precious gift, something Louisa had left behind to give him a reason for living – and, in those first weeks, he had needed a reason to go on.
"Jeremy," he said slowly, "when your mother died, I was not myself. I was stunned, and desperate, and I could not think clearly. But I never blamed you for what had happened, and I did not hate you. Does that answer your question?"
"I think it does," Jeremy said, took his hand and squeezed it comfortingly. "I have seen you sad lots of times, Father," he continued. "I often thought you were sad because of me. I thought I might have done something wrong, and you were sad because of that."
Philip gave a short laugh. "Have I ever been amiss in telling you when you have done anything wrong?" he asked.
Jeremy laughed. "No," he admitted. "But you know what, Father? I would really like to see you happy for a change."
I would really like to see you happy for a change. These words haunted Philip for the remainder of the day, and were constantly on his mind when he finally retired to his room in the evening.
When had Jeremy ever seen him happy, Philip wondered, and realised that he had probably never done so. Ever since Louisa's death, Philip had forbidden himself to feel anything. He would have considered happiness an unforgivable disloyalty to his wife. He had been so absorbed with his grief, with his loss, that what was still there for him to enjoy had been simply pushed aside. Instead of being grateful for what he had, he had mourned what he had lost – had cherished his misery, expected other people to pity him, and had refused to get on with his life.
"Pathetic," Philip said aloud. Had anyone in his acquaintance behaved in such a way as he had done in those past eight years, that person could have been sure of his disdain – at least, the old Philip Davies, the one he had been when Louisa was still alive, would have scorned such behaviour.
"You'd better face it," Philip said to himself. "You have wasted eight, nearly nine years of your life, and have ruined your son's childhood into the bargain. Congratulations."
Things could not go on that way, Philip decided. Louisa was dead, and nothing could bring her back. Were she to watch over him and Jeremy, she would be dismayed at what she saw. "But it is not for her sake I am going to change," Philip said. "I am going to change for mine. Get yourself a life, Philip Davies, will you?"
On walking into the breakfast parlour, Helena found Mr Davies already there and giving her a radiant smile.
"Good morning, Miss Erpingham," he said, rising and getting a chair ready for her. "I hope you have slept well."
"Thank you, sir," Helena said, surprised and pleased with Mr Davies's cordial manner.
"I was wondering whether you might want to join us, Miss Erpingham," Mr Davies continued. "With Mr Jarrett's permission, I am going to take Jeremy into town this morning. I am planning to treat him to some chocolate and cake at Molland's. What do you say?"
"This is very kind of you, sir," Helena said, "and I would love to join you, but I am afraid Mrs Montagu will object. She wants me to accompany her to the Pump Room." She could see the disappointment in Mr Davies's eyes, and wished her time were at her own disposal.
"Some other time, perhaps?" Mr Davies asked hopefully.
"When Mrs Montagu does not need me, I will be most happy to oblige," Helena said with a smile.
"Knowing that my aunt depends on your company nearly all the time, I see there is no hope for me," Mr Davies said. "Jeremy will be disappointed. He really wanted you to come along."
"Tell him I will come to play chess with him in the afternoon, when Mrs Montagu is having her nap," Helena answered.
"Playing chess with my son when I cannot be there to watch his progress?" Mr Davies asked, grinning. "Admit it! He is planning to crush me at the next opportunity."
"He has had no other thought these past days," Helena said. "Ambition is a desirable characteristic in a child. You have every reason to be proud of your son, sir."
"I know," Mr Davies said, with a smile. "I hope he knows I am."
"I think he does," Helena replied earnestly. "And he has every reason to be proud of you, too." Mr Davies looked at her with an odd smile, and reached out his hand as if to take hers – but as the door opened and Mrs Montagu entered the room, he drew it back. Yet, Mrs Montagu stared at them as if she had caught them doing something improper. That she did think so became evident when she talked to Helena that evening, while they were alone in the drawing room.
"I do not know what your plans are, Miss Erpingham, but be warned. I will not allow my nephew to get caught in your clutches."
"I beg your pardon?" Helena asked calmly.
"I have got eyes, Miss Erpingham," Mrs Montagu said. "I see things. No doubt gratitude makes my nephew blind – he dotes on that boy, and I admit your befriending him was the perfect strategy to win Philip's heart. But I, Miss Erpingham, will know what to do about it. Leave my nephew alone, or your will live to regret it. What will he do with the penniless daughter of a worthless, irresponsible gamester and suicide? Do you really think his family would consent to such a match?"
"Have you insulted me enough?" Helena asked, coldly. "For if you have, Madam, I would like to retire for the night."
"You do not like to hear the truth, do you?" Mrs Montagu said nastily. "You may think that marriage with my nephew is your ticket to security. But I will thwart your plans – I will not allow my nephew to throw himself away."
Seething with anger, Helena got up from her seat. "Mrs Montagu, I think it will be better if I leave my post," she said. "I may have suffered humiliation at times without saying anything, and I may have put up with your temper, Madam. It was my duty to do so. But I will not, I repeat, NOT tolerate this. You forget who I am, Mrs Montagu. I am Miss Helena Erpingham of Erpingham Hall, the daughter of Sir Paul Erpingham. I do not think Mr Davies would be throwing himself away if he ever offered for me – which, I suppose, he will never do. Your accusations are false, Madam, and if you had the least bit of sense you would never have uttered them. I believe you owe me my salary for four months, which I expect you will give me tomorrow morning. As far as I know, the London coach leaves at eight o'clock. I will be travelling on that coach, Madam. Good night."
Blind with unshed tears, Helena left the drawing room and went upstairs to her room, sending a servant to bring her trunks. She packed her things feverishly, hardly pausing to think. On closing the lid of her trunk, one thought suddenly occurred to her. She could not go without taking leave of Mr Davies and Jeremy.
Quietly, she opened the door of her room and went over to Jeremy's. She knocked at the door, and opened it. A candle was burning on the bedside table, and Jeremy turned to her.
"Miss Erpingham," he said quietly. "Are you not asleep? I heard you go to your room some time ago; I thought you might be sleeping already."
"Not without wishing you a good night," Helena said, wiping the tears from her eyes.
Jeremy sat up in his bed. "You are crying, Miss Erpingham," he said quietly.
"Only a bit," Helena said.
"But why?" Jeremy asked.
"I have to leave," Helena said. "I am going to leave Bath tomorrow morning."
"But you cannot go away!" Jeremy exclaimed. "What are we going to do without you?"
"Jeremy, you and your father have been doing very well before you have met me, and you will go on doing well. Please do not think you need me. You do not, Jeremy. Life will go on without me."
"No, it won't," Jeremy said stubbornly. "Why do you have to leave, anyway? Has old Aunt Montagu been mean to you?"
"I had a quarrel with her, Jeremy, and I have said things I should not have said. I got angry, you see? Now I cannot stay with her any longer."
"Where are you going?"
"I do not know," Helena said, with a sad smile. "America?" It was a weak attempt at joking, Helena thought. Jeremy took her seriously, however.
"What are you doing in America when we need you here?" he exclaimed. "Let the Americans fend for themselves! They do not need you, but we do!"
"We, Jeremy?" Helena asked.
"Yes, we. My father and me. Stay, Miss Erpingham. You can stay as my nursemaid if you want to. I will tell my father to fire Emily. Or he can fire Mrs Doyle. No one needs her anyway."
Despite herself, Helena had to laugh. "Jeremy, it is not that easy," she said. "I cannot work as a nursemaid or housekeeper for your father. People would talk, you see. Besides, consider, if Mrs Doyle left, Mephisto would go with her. Would you want that?"
"If I could have you instead, I would not mind," Jeremy said stubbornly. "Why would people talk if you stayed?"
"Neither your father nor I are married," Helena said. "If we lived in the same house, people would think…it would not be proper."
Jeremy thought for a moment, and then broke into a radiant smile. "Now I know, Miss Erpingham. You could marry my father! What do you say? I could get him to ask you, you know. Just tell me to."
Helena shook her head. "That, my dear boy, is out of the question," she said quietly. "Just imagine what people might say. Besides, I would not want him to marry me for your sake."
"Don't you like him, Miss Erpingham?" Jeremy asked.
"I like him very much, Jeremy. I love you both but…it cannot be. If your father married me just to please you, it would make him unhappy, and he so deserves to be happy."
Jeremy nodded. "Then there is nothing left to say but good-bye, Miss Erpingham," he said sadly. "I wish you could stay."
Helena embraced the boy, with tears in her eyes. "I wish so, too," she sobbed. "Good bye, Jeremy. You will always be in my heart." She left the room, and for a moment considered going downstairs to see whether Mr Davies was still up – but she did not want him to see her in tears. Tomorrow morning, when I have calmed down a bit, Helena thought. I will take leave then.
Helena hardly slept that night. She lay awake, pondering. She did not know how to break the news to Mr Davies. How she could tell him why she was leaving without speaking ill of Mrs Montagu she did not know, and she was afraid that he would take her sudden departure as an insult to himself – and their friendship. Her heart ached at the thought of leaving him behind.
At six o'clock, Helena rose from her bed and dressed slowly. Then she packed her remaining clothes, and went downstairs to the housekeeper's parlour to take leave of Mrs Doyle, putting off her last encounter with Mr Davies for as long as she could. She spent a quarter of an hour with Mrs Doyle, having breakfast in her company, until Mrs Montagu's dresser interrupted them and handed Helena a purse, expressing her disapproval at Helena's behaviour in no uncertain terms.
"Is Mrs Montagu up," Helena asked indifferently. "I want to say good-bye to her."
"Things have come to a pretty pass," the indignant servant replied sharply, "when Mrs Montagu rises a moment earlier than she is wont to do for her companion's sake."
"I thought so," Helena said coolly. "Please give her my thanks and tell her I will write to her as soon as I have reached London. My best wishes for her future." She arose. "I had better take leave of Mr Davies now," she said quietly. "Good bye, Mrs Doyle, and give my love to Mephisto!"
Mrs Doyle, sobbing into her handkerchief, promised to do so, and held the door open for Helena to leave. Helena went up the stairs and, after having been informed that Mr Davies was up and having breakfast, Helena entered the breakfast parlour for the very last time. She had another five minutes before she had to go.
Mr Davies gave Helena a surprised look as he saw her enter the room, dressed for travelling. "Are you going out so early, Miss Erpingham?" he asked her after having wished her a good morning.
"I have to," Helena said, putting up a brave smile. "Mr Davies, I came here to thank you for everything you have done for me, and to take leave. Let me assure you that I will always remember you and Jeremy as friends."
"Miss Erpingham, you are not leaving, are you?" There was an anxious ring to his voice.
"Actually, this is what I am doing, sir," Helena said. "Things have occurred which have made it impossible for me to stay here with your aunt. I have handed in my notice yesterday, and now I am leaving."
"I cannot say I blame you," Mr Davies said sadly. "After all, I have seen the way my aunt has treated you often enough, and I have always admired your patience. My aunt's manners are enough to upset a saint. Yet do not make any hasty decisions, Miss Erpingham. Sit down and reconsider – there must be another way. Stay in Bath! My sister will be happy to take you in." He looked into her eyes. "Please!"
Helena shook her head. "I cannot," she said. "As matters stand, your sister's assistance to me would only lead to a quarrel between her and Mrs Montagu. The last thing I want is to cause a family quarrel, Mr Davies. There is nothing for me to do but leave."
"Is there nothing I can do to make you stay?" Mr Davies asked, sounding rather desperate.
"I am afraid there is not," Helena said sadly. "Good bye, Mr Davies." She turned around, ready to leave the room, when she heard his swift steps come towards her and felt his hand on her shoulder.
"Let us not part this way," he said softly and made her turn to face him again. He lightly caressed her cheek and said, "You have not seen the last of me yet."
"Please, Mr Davies, don't," Helena said, turning away abruptly, trying hard to swallow her sobs. "It makes things only more painful. I have never wanted it…" She broke off, not believing what she had nearly said. I have never wanted it to end this way.
Somehow, Mr Davies looked as if he had understood what she had wanted to say. Unable to say anything more, she turned around and fled. On closing the door, she heard him say, very quietly, "Good bye, Helena."
Unable to continue his breakfast, Philip rose, pacing around the room agitatedly. He should have seen it coming, he thought. When Aunt Montagu had told him the evening before that "Miss Erpingham was not feeling well", he should have known. Helena's departure was Aunt Montagu's fault, Philip was certain, and he wondered what his aunt had said to her to make her so unwilling to stay a moment longer than she had to. Had it been because of him? Philip remembered what his aunt had said to him when Jeremy had been ill – that women like Helena would "do anything to make him feel beholden to them". Had she said something to that effect to Helena? He would not put it past her, and it would explain Helena's reaction when he had tried to take her in his arms. Did she think he did not love her? Or did she believe that he had no serious intentions concerning her? He had to convince her, somehow, that his aunt's – or anyone else's – opinion did not matter to him. What he wanted was to be with Helena. He was meant to be with her.
But first of all, Philip thought, realising the fatal mistake he had made, first of all you will have to find out where she has gone. Why did you not ask her, you idiot?
Philip left the breakfast room and went to library. He needed to think, and the very last thing he wanted was to be disturbed, least of all be disturbed by Aunt Montagu. He had half a mind to tell her what he thought of her behaviour, only he knew that he could just as well keep his opinion to himself, as Aunt Montagu was not likely to listen. She would not care, either.
Where was Helena going? There were not many places where she could go, Philip realised. Her sister, the odious Lady Woodward (for odious she had to be, Philip decided, or Helena would not prefer living with someone like Aunt Montagu to living with her) was unlikely to welcome her sister back in her house. Helena had once told him how her sister had reacted on her decision to be Mrs Montagu's companion.
Even if Lady Woodward welcomed her sister back – which she might well do, after all people would talk – the position Helena had in her house would be nowhere near desirable. No, her going back to Hilmerton Park was highly unlikely.
That friend of hers who had recommended Helena? What was her name? She lived in Wells, Helena had once said, and was acquainted with Aunt Montagu. Too bad he could not ask Aunt Montagu about that lady – she seemed determined to keep him and Helena apart, so she was not likely to give him any information that could lead him to Helena. Mrs H…., her name started with an H, Philip thought, but the name had escaped his memory for the moment. A glance at the clock reminded Philip that it was time for his morning visit in Jeremy's room, something he dreaded for the first time in his life. How was he to break the news to the boy?
As he entered the room, however, he was relieved of that worry when he found out that Jeremy had, apparently, already known Helena would leave.
"She has gone, hasn't she?" he asked his father calmly, the moment he came into the room. "I saw her leave."
Philip nodded. "I am afraid she has," he said.
Jeremy gave him an interested look. "You look upset," he said. "Does this worry you?"
"Of course it does," Philip said, and suddenly exclaimed, "Where can she be?"
"America, maybe," Jeremy said.
"America? Do not talk nonsense, Jeremy. How could she get there, I wonder, and with whom…hold on!" He stopped short, something in his mind telling him that America was a likely option. Helena had an uncle living in Savannah, Georgia, had she not?
"She said so, you know, so it is not nonsense," was Jeremy's offended answer.
"She said so? When, Jeremy?" Philip asked. Jeremy noticed the change in his father's voice. Now he did not sound so very much upset, but he did sound urgent.
"She came here yesterday evening to take leave," he therefore said.
"And she said she was going to America?" Philip asked, his mind racing. At this moment, she might be on her way to Southampton. Though why she might be going there was a mystery to him. Would it not be more convenient for her to travel to Bristol and board a ship there?
"She said she did not know where she would be going, but she said she might perhaps go to America," Jeremy said. "I told her to stay here, because we needed her, but she said she could not stay because people would talk." He gave his father a sharp look. "Why would they talk, Father?"
Philip, taken aback by the question, simply said, "I will tell you when you are older, Jeremy. You may not understand it yet. Just as much – people are malicious, and they like to talk about things that are none of their business. Now, did she really say she was going to America?"
"No, she said she did not know where she was going. She just mentioned America as a possibility."
"Her uncle," Philip said. "She may have gone to her uncle's. But she cannot board a vessel all by herself! This is madness!"
"She need not, or does she?" Jeremy asked.
"Of course, if she wants to go to Georgia," Philip said, but then broke into a grin. "No, you are right. She need not – or not yet. Her uncle is in England at the moment. – Jeremy, what would you say if…" He paused. Was he doing the right thing?
"What would you say if I brought her back?" He watched his son anxiously, wondering whether Jeremy knew how much depended on his answer.
"That would be splendid!" Jeremy exclaimed. "Do! You will, won't you?"
"I will try," Philip said with a relieved smile. "I will certainly try. – Jeremy, I will have to leave for a while, but I am afraid I cannot take you with me. What do you think; do you want to stay with Aunt Emma while I am gone?"
"Does it have to be Aunt Emma?" Jeremy asked. "Can I not stay here? Emily will look after me, and Mrs Doyle, too."
"I had rather have your aunt look after you, Jeremy," Philip said.
"I suppose there is a price to pay for everything," Jeremy said wisely. "Fine. I will stay with Aunt Emma if you promise me to bring Helena back."
"I will do my best," Philip said. "Now I will have to go and talk Aunt Emma into taking you in."
"Don't bother if she doesn't want me," Jeremy said. "I can think of better things than staying in the same house with Uncle Howard for days."
Weeks, more likely, Philip thought but did not say so.
After a long and strenuous journey of two days, Helena reached London by nightfall. During her voyage, she had had ample opportunity to regret the step she had taken. Perhaps she should have stayed in Bath after all, she thought. Philip….Mr Davies had been most anxious to keep her there, and coming to think of it, had it not been for Mrs Montagu, the prospect would have pleased her. But she could not allow Philip…Mr Davies to relinquish his family for her sake. She was not worth the sacrifice.
The mail coach stopped, and Helena got off. The coachman was so kind as to help her find a hackney, and loaded her trunks onto it. Helena was sorry she could not give him much by way of a tip, he had been her protector during the journey – a tall, stout man in his fifties, and he had treated her as if she were his own daughter.
"Good luck, Miss," he called after her as the hackney coach left him behind. Good luck, Helena thought. I am definitely going to need it. She had left Bath in a hurry, and had not once stopped to consider whether her uncle would actually want her. Well, she would see soon.
They arrived at Berkeley Square, and the coachman turned to her. "What address, Miss?" he demanded to know. Helena did not have the slightest idea. Grace had only told her that her uncle had taken a house in Berkeley Square, but she had not mentioned which house it was.
"You do not happen to know where Captain Erpingham's lodgings are, do you?" she asked with what she hoped was a winning smile.
"Nah, Miss, I've no idea," the coachman said. "So, where shall I set you down? I haven't got all evening!"
Helena noticed a servant girl carrying some baskets towards a house, and called out to her. The girl turned around, and came up to the carriage.
"Can I help you, Miss?" she asked.
"I hope you can," Helena said. "Are you employed in one of these houses?"
"Yes, Miss, in Number Twelve, just over there," the girl said.
"Can you tell me which of these houses is Captain Erpingham's? He must have moved in quite recently," Helena said.
"Moved in recently, you say?" the girl asked. "It must be the one over there, then. An American gentleman is said to have taken it."
"Excellent!" Helena exclaimed, thanked the girl and gave her a shilling for her pains. The coachman, obviously glad to get rid of her, set down her trunks and, after Helena had paid him, lost no time in leaving. Nervously, Helena rang the doorbell.
A dignified-looking butler opened. "Good evening," he said, in a questioning tone, looking Helena up and down. "What can I do for you, Ma'am?"
"Is this Captain Erpingham's residence?" Helena asked.
"Yes, it is," the butler replied.
"I am Captain Erpingham's niece," Helena said. "Will you tell him that I am here to see him?"
"I am afraid Captain Erpingham has gone out," the butler said.
"Then perhaps Mrs Erpingham will see me," Helena said, careful not to betray how desperate she was.
"Mrs Erpingham has also gone out," the butler said.
"Let me in nevertheless," Helena said determinedly. "I will wait."
"I am not sure whether…" the butler began.
"I have not come here to listen to your insolence," Helena said sharply. "Let me in, and show me into a room where I can wait for Captain Erpingham – or you will live to regret it. Do you think the Captain will congratulate you on turning his niece from the house?"
Reluctantly, the butler stepped aside and let her enter the house. "Someone should take care of my trunk," Helena said.
"Certainly, Miss," the butler said dryly and opened a door. "If Miss would like to wait in here?"
Helena entered a drawing room. There was no fire in the grate, however, and the room was cold. Apparently, no one was going to sit there this evening, Helena thought. She hoped either her uncle or her aunt would come back home soon. She sat down on one of the sofas, keeping her pelisse and gloves on and only taking her bonnet off. Soon a housemaid entered, carrying a tray with sandwiches and a teapot.
"Mrs Skinner sends her compliments," she said and curtsied. "She said you must be famished. Captain Erpingham may not be back for a while, so…"
"Thank you very much," Helena said. "Tell me, who is Mrs Skinner. The cook?"
"Yes, Miss," the girl said. "She and Mr Robson are sort of quarrelling as to who has the managing of the house when the Captain and Mrs Erpingham are not around."
"Then I suppose Mrs Skinner has sent me the sandwiches to spite Mr Robson?" Helena asked with a grin.
"Could be," the girl said. "But she really thought you must be hungry, Miss."
"How right she was!" Helena sighed. "Tell her I am very much obliged."
With a curtsy, the girl left Helena to her own devices. The sandwiches were delicious, and the tea did much to restore her to warmth and optimism. Only for a few moments did Helena think of the wonderful evenings in Philip's drawing room in Bath, when Mrs Montagu had gone to bed and she had been left alone with Philip, to play chess or simply talk…
Helena froze. She had distinctly heard the front door open and shut, and she heard a voice she recognised only too well – it was the same voice as her father's, and for a moment she had the impression that it was her father, returning from the grave.
She heard the butler's – Robson's – explanation, "There is a young lady to see you, sir. She claims to be your niece."
"I had better see her then. Where is she?"
"I took the liberty to show her into the drawing room, sir," the butler replied.
"The drawing room? Are you planning to deprive me of my entire family? It is freezing cold in there! Show her into the study – I will be with her in a couple of minutes."
Helena heard some quick steps ascending the stairs, and the drawing room door opened to admit the butler.
"Captain Erpingham will see you in a few minutes," he said coldly. "If you would follow me, please?"
He took Helena to another room, a room lined with bookshelves – the study. A blazing fire was in the grate, and Helena sat down in the armchair nearest to it. She closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth…
"You must have a long journey behind you!" her father's voice said right next to her. Helena started and opened her eyes. Was it possible that she had dropped off to sleep?
"I did not mean to startle you," the gentleman standing next to her said with a smile. "You must be Helena. I admit you look very much like your father – I would have recognised you as his daughter anywhere."
"Uncle?" Helena asked.
"Quite," he said with a smile. Even though his voice was like her father's, his looks were not, Helena thought. Sir Paul Erpingham had been a rather short, wiry, energetic man. Captain Erpingham was taller, more powerfully built, and his hair was fuller than his brother's. He did not look his age, Helena thought. His hair was black, with only a few grey hairs at the temples.
"I am not going to bother you with questions tonight," he continued, smiling at her, "seeing how exhausted you are. I thought you were staying with friends in Bath, or so your sister has told me. I suppose something must have happened that made you leave the place in a hurry – or you would not turn up on my doorstep, with no one to bear you company, not even a servant. – No, no explanations tonight, if you please. Get a good night's sleep before you tell me."
His accent was different from her father's too, Helena thought. One could tell that he had spent the past twenty-something years abroad.
"Your aunt is not at home tonight," he continued. "Charlotte has been invited to dine with some friends of hers and they will go to the opera later – this is why I am here, I am not really fond of the opera." He laughed. "Unfortunately, I have an appointment as well, and I will have to leave you soon – I believe, however, that you will not need my company tonight. You look shattered, if I may say so. Hannah will take good care of you."
He rang a bell, and told the maidservant Helena already knew to send Hannah to see him.
"Hannah is your aunt's lady's maid," he said. "You need not be afraid of her – she does look formidable, but she has a heart of gold."
The door opened, and an imposing female entered the room. She was dressed in white, and wore a turban – and had the blackest face Helena had ever seen. For the first time, Helena realised that her uncle might be a slaveholder.
"Hannah," Uncle Erpingham said, "this is my niece, Miss Helena Erpingham. She has just arrived from Bath and is in desperate need of some sleep. Will you take care that Miss Erpingham gets everything she needs?"
"Mrs Erpingham did not mention anything about a niece of yours coming to visit, sir," Hannah said sharply, eyeing her master suspiciously. Helena was not certain whether a slave was allowed to use that tone with her master. It did not seem to upset her uncle overly much, though.
"Mrs Erpingham did not know," he said, something like exasperation ringing in his voice. "I did not know either, or I would have told you in time. Now get a bedroom prepared for her, and get the girl something to eat – she must be starving," he said.
"Actually, I had some sandwiches while I was waiting for you," Helena said.
"Sandwiches," Uncle Erpingham snorted derisively. "I was talking about a decent meal."
He turned to Hannah again. "I hope Miss Erpingham will not lack anything while I am gone," he said. "Anyone lacking in respect towards her will have to bear the consequences. – Good night, Helena," he said, smiling. "We will talk tomorrow."
With these words, he left, and Helena was led to an elegant bedchamber where she was to spend the night.
"Will you stop sulking?" Aunt Montagu asked Philip. The past two days, Philip had ignored his aunt whenever he had been able to.
"I am not sulking," Philip said.
"Of course you are. Ever since that gold digger has left the house, you have not spoken a single word to me unless you had to. Can't you see that I did this for the best?"
"No," Philip said frankly. "I cannot remember having asked you to interfere with my personal affairs, Aunt."
"Your personal affairs?" Aunt Montagu snorted. "Did you ever consider the rest of us? It may be no concern of yours that we cannot show our faces in town any more because you choose to fall for a servant, but if I can prevent it, I will!"
"That you have shown quite clearly," Philip said angrily. "I shall only remind you that Miss Erpingham is a baronet's daughter, not a servant. If one of us is beneath the other, it will be me, not her. My father was not titled."
"Nor was he ruined," Aunt Montagu replied sharply. "Nor did he commit suicide and leave his family penniless."
"Nor is Miss Erpingham to blame for her father's actions," Philip said. "Listen, Aunt, I will have no more of this. You had better accept it – I will ask Miss Erpingham to be my wife."
"If you find her," Aunt Montagu said maliciously.
"That will not be too difficult," Philip said, hoping he sounded convincing. "Besides, it is my concern, not yours. I am going to leave for London tomorrow morning. Jeremy will go and stay with Emma. As for you, you are of course welcome to stay here for a while – although I hope you will be gone when I return with Helena. I cannot really expect her to offer you hospitality in her house. Not after all you have done to her."
"HER house?" Mrs Montagu exclaimed. "She offer me hospitality? Has it come to that? You may rest assured that I will be gone if you bring her back here, and I will never pass that threshold of yours again as long as I live! Should you have the audacity to marry her, Philip, you will no longer be a member of my family, do you hear? I had planned to leave Newark House to you – but I will change my will first thing tomorrow. You cannot expect me to let her become mistress of my house when I am gone!"
"Newark House is yours to give to whomever you wish," Philip said calmly. "I have never wanted it, and I have never wanted your fortune either. If you want to disown me, feel free to do so – I do not need you in any way. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a long journey before me, so I will go to bed. Do not trouble yourself to get up early to see me off, Aunt."
He rose and left the dining room before his aunt could answer. This was rather rude, Philip thought as he went upstairs to Jeremy's room, but nothing in comparison to what I might have said, had I stayed with Aunt Montagu any longer. If I cannot persuade Helena to marry me, it will be HER fault – and I will never be able to forgive her if that happens. How could I forgive her for ruining my life?
Jeremy was already in bed and greeted him cheerfully. "Have you packed your trunks?" he asked him. "What are you going to do in London?"
Philip spent half an hour telling Jeremy about his plans in London – he would stay with his friend, Colonel Templeton, who was well known in London society and who could easily introduce him to someone who knew Captain Erpingham. He had sent an express to him the previous day and had received an express in return, in which Templeton had assured him of his assistance. Then there were the Carmichaels, who would be able to help as well. Once he had gained access to Helena's circle…Philip stopped.
"Do you think she will come?" Jeremy asked quietly.
"I have no idea," Philip sighed. "But I do hope she will."
"I could come with you and help you, Father," Jeremy said. "She may not listen to you, but she may listen to me, you know."
Philip shook his head. "The journey would be too exhausting for you," he said. "You have not fully recovered yet. I want you to stay with Aunt Emma and be a good boy. Will you do that for me?"
Jeremy nodded. "But if she won't come," he said, "I will go to London and fetch her myself."
A good night's sleep had done Helena good, just as her uncle had predicted. When she awoke the next morning, she felt refreshed and ready to face her uncle. Though he had been surprised to see her, he had not acted as if she were unwelcome, she thought, and hoped that this was a good sign. Of course, her aunt would have a say in the matter as well. Helena did not know Aunt Charlotte, and therefore she dreaded meeting her for the first time, and having to tell her why she had imposed on them the way she had.
Aunt Charlotte was not inclined to censure her, however – on the contrary, she bid her welcome with a radiant smile and asked her to feel at home in her house.
"It will be wonderful to have someone young around for a change," she said. "When your uncle told me you had arrived I was so happy! Finally someone to look after, I said to him! My dear girl, I will not let you leave us in a hurry, be warned!"
Helena thanked her with a shy smile, and turned to her breakfast. After breakfast, her uncle asked her to follow him to the study.
"So, why did you come to us in that hurried manner?" he asked. "What has happened?"
Helena told him the entire story – the reasons for her reluctance to stay at Hilmerton Park with Grace and Sir James Woodward, her employment in Mrs Montagu's household, her journey to Bath, Jeremy's illness, her growing friendship with Philip, and Mrs Montagu's accusations.
"So you left because Mrs Montagu accused you of improper behaviour," Uncle Erpingham said.
"Partly," Helena said. "I also left because she insulted my family. She called my father a worthless, irresponsible gamester and suicide."
"I understand," Uncle Erpingham said. "I do not understand, however, why your sister lied to me. Why did she tell me you were staying with friends when you were actually working for this Mrs Montagu?"
"I think she was ashamed of me," Helena said quietly.
"Should have been ashamed of herself, instead," Uncle Erpingham said. "Listen, my dear – you can stay with us for as long as you want. Charlotte has always wanted a daughter – she is delighted to have you here. I do not know whether you want to follow us to Savannah when we go back. I actually came here to ask your brother Frederick to come with us – I have no son, and he could take over once I die, or get too old to see to my business myself. You can join us as well, but I will leave the choice to you. There might be a reason for you to stay in England." He gave Helena a searching look. "Or isn't there?"
Helena thought for a moment. She still hoped to meet Philip again, yet she knew there was no chance she could ever marry him without making him unhappy.
"I am not sure," she said quietly. "But I will think about it."
"Good," Uncle Erpingham said cheerfully, and sent Helena to "get properly acquainted with her aunt". For once, Helena thought, I seem to have found a place where I am welcome. So why am I not happy?
She knew the answer to that question, however. She missed Philip, more than she had ever missed anyone.
This will pass, Helena, she thought. Just wait. This too will pass.
Instead of passing, Helena's longing for Philip Davies grew worse. Whenever she saw a man who – however slightly – resembled him, her heart missed a beat, and although she kept telling herself that he would hardly leave his convalescent son behind to chase after her, she cherished the absurd hope that he would do so. Helena kept thinking about the last time they had met – in the breakfast parlour in Pulteney Street – and the way Philip had talked to her, and how he had touched her cheek – lightly, caressingly. Sometimes she imagined what might have happened, had she consented to stay in Bath. Philip had been sincere in his entreaties, Helena had seen that in his eyes, and she had had to use all her resolve to wrench herself away from him. You have not seen the last of me yet, he had said, and the thought of meeting him again made Helena shiver, for she knew she could not vouch for her actions if she did. She imagined herself flying into Philip's arms upon seeing him, to the astonishment of everyone present as well as – most likely – his.
Helena was not aware that her thoughts and fears were reflected in her face and eyes, and that her Aunt Charlotte kept a close, anxious watch on her.
"It is enough to make one cry," she said to her husband one evening when Helena had retired to her room. "She does not confide in me, for which I do not blame her, she barely knows me after all. Yet I am her aunt, and I so wish to be of any use to her! Mind you, if it is not some young man or other who is responsible for the poor girl's state of mind, my name is not Charlotte Erpingham! I wish I could get my hands on the fellow – how can he torment her so?"
"I think it is Helena who torments herself," Captain Erpingham replied calmly. "Either she has fallen in love with a man who does not return her feelings, which made her run away from him to avoid making a fool of herself – or she ran away because he does love her and her courage has failed her. One way or the other, the matter will be resolved soon. I have a suspicion regarding said gentleman's identity." He smiled. "Though one need not be a genius to find out."
"Thank you very much," Mrs Erpingham said stiffly. "I have no idea whom you can mean. But if you know who he is, why don't you go and talk to him? Why don't you seek him out and make him do what is right?"
"My dear, I have no inclination to meddle in other people's love affairs," Captain Erpingham said.
"You should! Just look at how miserable the poor girl is! It is your duty to settle her affairs for her! You are her uncle, and you have taken her father's place. What would your brother have done in your stead?"
"Paul?" Captain Erpingham laughed bitterly. "Paul would have done nothing at all! He always put his own interests first. He would have been glad that the whole affair had come to nothing, for his daughter would have stayed with him and saved him the expense of a housekeeper. Not to mention her dowry, which would have remained safely in his pocket - until his next visit to London, where he would have gambled it away. This is what Helena's father would have done."
Mrs Erpingham gave her husband a shocked, incredulous look. "I cannot believe anyone could be so heartless!"
"You have never met my brother," Captain Erpingham said grimly. "I grew up with him." He sighed. "Very well," he said soothingly. "If we do not hear from the gentleman I am thinking about these two weeks, which is what I expect will happen, I shall make a short trip to Bath. Happy, my dear?"
"It is the least thing you can do," Mrs Erpingham said resolutely. "If only I could do something to cheer the poor girl up!" Then a smile spread on her face. "Bath, you say? I believe now I have some idea as to the gentleman's identity, too."
"You see?" Captain Erpingham said smilingly. "I told you it was not difficult to find out."
Philip had not seen his friend Colonel Templeton for years. The last time Templeton had been in Bath had been several years before, upon which occasion he had been shocked at his friend's secluded life. Having known him in his bachelor days, when Philip Davies had been known to be gregarious and never averse to a night out with his friends, his self-inflicted solitude had greatly dismayed Templeton. The more surprised he was that his friend had finally come to London, a place where he had not set foot ever since his wife's death, and was determined to get him out of his shell.
"So you have finally come out of hiding, have you?" he greeted Philip as he was ushered into his study.
Philip smiled. "I have never been in hiding."
"Oh, do come!" Templeton said. "Burying yourself in a place like Bath."
"Bath has its merits, Templeton."
"For the old and infirm, I grant you," Templeton said. "You are neither."
"You are wrong there," Philip said. "I have only just recovered."
"Being dead," Philip said dryly. "I woke up one day and realised I had not lived for eight years. I hope to catch up on things now."
"That's the spirit!" Templeton grinned. "And I am to help you there?"
"If you can," Philip said, smilingly. "I told you in my letter I have come here in search of one Captain Erpingham, a former Navy officer."
"Is he in any way related to Sir Paul Erpingham?" Templeton asked. "I used to know him - not very well, mind you, a nodding acquaintance, but nevertheless I knew him. Unfortunately he won't be much help in this affair."
"That I know," Philip said. "Yes, the Captain is a relation of Sir Paul's. He is his brother."
"I see," Templeton said. "I will see what I can do – in making inquiries among Sir Paul's friends. But why do you not make use of your Navy connections, Davies?"
"My Navy connections?" Philip asked. "What are you talking about, pray?"
"Your grandfather was an admiral, wasn't he?"
"So what? My grandfather has been dead these twenty years. I am afraid he will offer us as much assistance as Sir Paul Erpingham."
"Surely some of your grandfather's friends are still around? Captain Erpingham may know them. You know how those Navy fellows stick together…"
"Which is a thing the Army fellows would not even think of," Philip said, grinning. "You have got a point, but the problem is that I am not acquainted with any of my grandfather's friends, except old Captain Urquart, who was in Bath and very much inclined to stay there last time I saw him."
"Pity. - As I said, I will see what I can do to throw you in Captain Erpingham's way," Templeton said. "But why this eagerness to meet him?"
Philip smiled. "Explaining this to you now will take more time than I have on my hands at the moment," he said. "I have yet to go and see the Carmichaels, you know."
"Very well then," Templeton said, laughingly. "I will expect a full confession tonight, when you dine with me."
"Did I say I'd dine with you?" Philip asked.
"No, but I expect you to," Templeton laughed. "Don't you dare refuse, Davies – this is not the way to treat one's old friends."
"I did not say I'd refuse either," Philip said. "When do you want me to come?"
"Will seven o'clock be convenient?"
"Perfect," Philip said and rose. "I hope you will be able to get at some acquaintance of Captain Erpingham's until then."
"You're not one to put people under pressure, are you?" Templeton said, laughingly.
"No," Philip said. "I do not call this pressure. Encouragement is the word."
"You would have done well in the Army," Templeton said.
"Had I ever shown any inclination towards a military profession, I'd have ended up in the Navy," Philip said. "One has to keep up with family tradition. I shall see you at seven o'clock!"
Helena felt like a spoilt child. Her aunt and uncle seemed determined to make amends for the months during which she had lived in straitened circumstances, showered her with presents and did their best to amuse her. Her aunt was determined to make the best of her stay in London, and to buy whatever modish things she could lay her hands on. Every expedition into London's shops ended with a huge amount of parcels being delivered to Berkeley Square, and Aunt Charlotte was inclined to spend quite as much money on Helena.
"Savannah is a lovely place," she once said to Helena, "but it is not London, of course. So I'll do what I can to outshine all my friends there when I come back home. It is one of the few pleasures one has. – I think that lilac silk over there will suit you, my dear. Try it!"
"Aunt, I am still in mourning," Helena protested.
"Trim it with black lace then," Aunt Charlotte said. "Besides, my dear, you won't be in mourning forever, I hope." Then, without listening to Helena's protests, Aunt Charlotte ordered the lilac silk and bespoke an evening dress for her niece. Helena suffered her measurements to be taken, and though trying to dissuade her aunt from spending so much money on her, she had to admit that she liked the idea of getting new clothes.
Her uncle was just as generous as his wife. While Aunt Charlotte bought clothes, shoes, fans and other accessories for her niece, Captain Erpingham decided that Helena was in need of some jewellery. One morning, a prominent jeweller arrived in Berkeley Square to present his wares to Helena, and she was to choose among the trinkets. Helena would have been content to settle on the most reasonably priced pieces, just to please her uncle, but this would not do. Realising that his niece based her decisions on financial rather than other criteria, Captain Erpingham made her try on every single piece of jewellery and chose for her, despite her protestations that she could not allow him to spend such a staggering sum on her.
"Uncle, I cannot feel comfortable at the thought that you spend so much money on me," Helena said. "I did not come to London to take advantage of your generosity."
Captain Erpingham laughed. "Don't I know that?" he said. "Listen, Helena, what I give to you is given gladly, you can be sure of that."
"But you and Aunt Charlotte are spoiling me," Helena said.
"Let us spoil you while we can," Captain Erpingham simply answered, "and stop worrying."
The next day, some young women came to be inspected by Aunt Charlotte – she had decided that her niece was in need of her own lady's maid.
"But why, Aunt?" Helena asked. "Hannah is doing very well!"
"Yes, Hannah is a gem," Aunt Charlotte said placidly. "But you need someone of your own, my dear. You cannot await my convenience every time. Do not worry, I will find the perfect girl for you."
So she did – Dorothy Stevenson, a young woman about the same age as Helena, started her work in Berkeley Square the very next day, and Helena liked her immediately.
That evening, Captain Erpingham took his wife and niece to Drury Lane, to see The Merchant of Venice. For the first time since her father's death, Helena re-entered London society. Her memory of being an invisible companion was still fresh, and she was startled by the amount of attention that her appearance caused. She saw people turn their heads towards her, scrutinize her attire, and she heard their whispers. Her new apparel – the lilac dress, an amethyst necklace and earrings, and an elaborate hairstyle – did much to make people stare. Never before had Helena appeared in such splendour, and Helena knew she would be hardly recognisable, especially for people who had only known her as Mrs Montagu's companion.
The more surprised she was when, during intermission, the door of her uncle's box was opened and in came the Carmichaels.
"See, I told you," Flora said to her husband. "The moment I saw her, I knew. Helena! How glad I am to see you! And how fine you look!"
Helena introduced her friends to her aunt and uncle, and spent some comfortable minutes chatting with Flora, while Mr Carmichael exchanged pleasantries with her uncle. As they left, Flora promised to call on Helena the next day – "for there are so many things I have to tell you!". Helena was eagerly looking forward to spending a morning in Flora's company, for most likely the Carmichaels had news from Bath - news from Philip.
"You saw her?" Philip asked eagerly. "What did she look like? Did she look well? Is she … is she happy, do you think?"
Philip had called on the Carmichaels early and had been invited to breakfast with them.
He watched Mrs Carmichael as she took a sip of her tea, obviously thinking about her answer.
"I am not sure…" she said.
"From the doctor's point of view, she looked well enough to me," Carmichael said with a smile.
"Good!" Philip said. "But why are you not sure, Mrs Carmichael?"
"She did look healthy, and her aunt and uncle seem to be a decent sort," Mrs Carmichael said slowly. "She was different, though, not the Helena I used to know. It may have been her appearance, of course, quite the grand lady, she was – though not in her behaviour, she was just as amiable as she has always been. But she did not look happy, I think. What do you say, my dear?" She turned to her husband.
Carmichael shrugged. "I have never been a good judge as to that," he said.
"I will go and call on her today," Mrs Carmichael said and smiled at Philip. "Shall I tell her that you are in London?"
Philip thought for a moment, then he shook his head. "No, not yet," he said. "I want to take her by surprise."
"You want to see what her reaction will be on seeing you so unexpectedly, you mean?" Mrs Carmichael asked. "Very well, I shall not mention it, then. But I will invite her to dine with us." She smiled. "It will do her good to have a doctor nearby when she does see you here."
Aunt Charlotte was watching her with evident amusement as Helena was impatiently waiting for her visitor. She had seated herself at the writing desk at the window, to be able to catch a glimpse of the street below now and then, but instead of working on her letter to Cecy Harrington, she kept looking out of the window.
When, finally, the doorbell rang and Robson announced Mrs Carmichael, Helena had already gone halfway to the door to meet her when Flora came in.
"Have you been waiting for me?" Flora asked. "I would have come earlier, only just as I wanted to set out, one of my husband's friends called on us, which is why I am so late."
"It does not matter," Helena said with what she hoped was a convincing smile. "Now tell me, what have you been up to these days?"
Flora lost no time in telling Helena everything she had done during her stay in London, and spent a quarter of an hour praising her husband and his generosity. After having listened patiently to everything Flora had said without hearing what she so wanted to know, Helena finally felt compelled to ask her.
"Flora…have you had any news from Bath?"
Flora hesitated for a moment, and then said, "My husband had a letter from Mr Davies some days ago. He told us that Jeremy was getting better, and that he had been out of the house for the first time – and that you had left."
"No more news?"
"None that I know of," Flora said. She gave Helena a searching look. "Is there any message you want me to convey to Bath?"
"A message? No, of course not," Helena said lightly, although she felt as if her heart might break. Had Philip said nothing to his friend, nothing except that Miss Erpingham had left? "I wrote to Mrs Montagu when I had arrived in London, and I see no reason for me to correspond with her on a regular basis."
"Neither do I," Flora agreed.
"Coming to think of it," Helena said thoughtfully, "when your husband writes his next letter to Mr Davies, do you think he could send my love to Jeremy?"
"I am certain he will do so," Flora said. "Now, Helena, and Mrs Erpingham too, of course, I would be greatly honoured if you were to dine with us the day after tomorrow."
Aunt Charlotte declined the invitation – she already had an appointment with a friend of hers – but Helena accepted it gladly. Some time later, Flora left, and Helena returned to the writing desk again, ostentatiously proceeding with her letter to Cecy, but in reality pondering over Philip Davies.
Templeton had been successful, or so it seemed. Philip received a hurried note from him, informing him that, should he find it convenient to meet his friend at White's the following evening, he might get the chance to encounter Captain Erpingham there. So, after having dressed with rather more care than usual, Philip took a hackney to White's to meet Helena's uncle. He was not sure what he would say to Captain Erpingham once he did get the chance to talk to him. What would they talk about?
At White's, the porter took Philip to his friend Templeton.
"As you see, I have been very busy in your affairs, Davies," Templeton said by way of a greeting. "Apparently, your navy connections will help you."
"Indeed?" Philip asked. "In how far?"
"Captain Erpingham knew your grandfather," Templeton said. "What is more, he seems to have been rather fond of him. Sailed with him as a young lieutenant, actually."
"Which means that he will be … let us say … inclined to meet the old Admiral's grandson. It will give you something to talk about. Unless you want to tell him about his niece's qualities right away, that is."
"Of course not," Philip said. "I do wonder, however, how he will recognise me as old Admiral Davies's grandson."
"Never mind about that. He will," Templeton said with a grin. "A friend of mine will see to that. Now have a glass of wine while we are waiting. Have you heard from your sweetheart?"
"Don't," Philip said fiercely. "You make it sound as if there were something offensive to my feelings for her."
"I am sorry, I did not mean to insult anyone, neither you nor your intended. Do you like that word better?"
"Much better. Although you cannot really call her my intended either."
"Yes, I can. You intend to marry her, after all. I did not say betrothed." Templeton smiled. "Now, have you heard of her?"
"The Carmichaels met her in the theatre," Philip said. "Including her aunt and uncle. Mrs Carmichael went to see her yesterday morning, and she invited her to dine with them tomorrow evening. Which is when I will meet her."
"Does she know you are in London, then?"
"She has no idea," Philip said. "I want to surprise her."
"Good God! Do you think that is a good idea?"
"Yes, I do think so," Philip said. "I want to see for myself how she reacts on the news that I am in London."
"To what purpose?"
"I believe that her reaction will give me a clue as to how she will respond to my proposal," Philip said.
"You mean, if she turns away from you in disgust you need not bother to make her an offer of marriage."
"Precisely," Philip said, taking a sip of wine. "Though I flatter myself that she will not turn away from me in disgust."
"Then why all this secrecy?"
"I want to be sure," Philip simply said. Templeton's eyes turned to a group of gentlemen who had just entered the room. "There he is," he whispered. "Foley, the fellow who will introduce you to Captain Erpingham."
Some minutes later, two gentlemen came towards their table. One of them was in his mid-forties, and his weather-beaten face betrayed his profession - he had to be a sailor. The other man was older, and, if his clothing was anything to judge by, more affluent, too. The younger man turned to Templeton.
"You mentioned the other day that you were acquainted with Admiral Davies's grandson. Is this the gentleman you were talking about? Would you care to introduce us? We used to know the Admiral, and we have great respect for him."
Templeton, as if he had not been behind all this, graciously complied and introduced his friend, Mr Foley, to Philip, and Foley proceeded by presenting Captain Erpingham.
"Your grandfather was indeed Admiral Davies?" Captain Erpingham asked and, as Philip confirmed this, continued, "An excellent man, your grandfather was. I had the honour to sail with him once – he taught me a great deal. Did you know him?"
"Not very well," Philip admitted. "He was in active service, as you know, and died at sea, too. I only met him on those rare occasions when he spent some time ashore. But we were very fond of him." Philip smiled. "Rather proud of him, too."
"Mr Davies," Captain Erpingham said, with an odd smile, "among your relatives, is there, by any chance, a lady by the name of Montagu?"
"Mrs Montagu is my aunt, sir." Philip said.
"Then you are Mr Philip Davies, residing in Pulteney Street, Bath?"
"So I am," Philip said. "You have heard about me, I gather."
"I have," Captain Erpingham said curtly. "I would have no objection to hearing some more, however. Would you care to join me for a glass of port over there?"
Nodding assent, Philip got up and followed Captain Erpingham to a secluded niche on the other side of the room. After having handed Philip a glass of port, Captain Erpingham took his seat opposite him and said, "Well?"
"What do you want me to tell you, sir?" Philip asked.
"Why did you come to London? That might do for a start," Captain Erpingham said.
"I came to London for the sole purpose of finding your niece, sir," Philip said. "She left Bath in a hurry, and whatever I said I could not persuade her to stay there."
"You wanted her to stay, then?"
"Very much so. What is more, I want her to come back," Philip said.
"Plain speaking. I like that in a man," Captain Erpingham said. "You want to marry my niece. Why?"
"Can anyone know Miss Erpingham and still ask why I want to marry her?" Philip retorted. "I love her, that is why."
"Your family's opposition does not weigh with you, then?"
"Who said anything about my family's opposition?"
"Helena said that Mrs Montagu did not like the thought of a match between you and her."
"Aunt Montagu has no say in my affairs. As to my family - those people who really matter to me – you can be certain that they will love your niece. My sister is already acquainted with her, and has assured me that she would be delighted to welcome her as her new sister-in-law. As to my brother, he will not object to the marriage either, for he wants to see me happy. My son…Jeremy loves Miss Erpingham as dearly as if she were his mother."
"Your wish to marry Helena has nothing to do with acquiring a new mother for your son?"
"If this were my only wish, sir, I might have remarried long ago," Philip said. "Of course Jeremy's wellbeing is foremost in my thoughts, and however much I love your niece, I could not marry her if Jeremy disliked her – or if she disliked him. But the only reason for my wish to marry Miss Erpingham is that I love her. Jeremy has nothing to do with it."
"Since when have you been in London, sir?"
"I arrived some days ago," Philip said.
"Yet you did not try to see my niece."
"First, I had to find out where she was," Philip said. "She did not tell me where she was going when she left Bath. Then I was not sure whether I would be welcome. After all my aunt has done to her, anyone reminding Miss Erpingham of her time as Mrs Montagu's companion might be regarded a nuisance. I was planning to take my time, and to surprise her at one point. I am going to see your niece at Mrs Carmichael's tomorrow evening, though."
"Does she know you will be there?"
"No, she does not. I asked Mrs Carmichael not to tell her that I am in town."
Captain Erpingham gave Philip a close look. "I do not know why, but I like you," he finally said. "I confess I was planning to go to Bath and to see for myself why Helena left there. I am glad to see that this journey has become unnecessary. As for your intentions regarding my niece, I wish you luck, and I really hope that the two of you will be able to come to an understanding." He smiled. "Let me assure you that I do not want to spoil your surprise," he said. "I won't tell her that you are in London. Though I wish I was there when she sees that you are."
With a polite bow, Captain Erpingham took his leave, and Philip realised that he had found a new ally. Helena's uncle was on his side. Our side, really, Philip thought. We belong together, Helena and I. I'll just have to make her see that.
Helena took particular care of her appearance when she prepared for the dinner party with the Carmichaels. She did not want them to get the impression she had become too fine for their company, and therefore, among her selection of new dresses, she chose the simplest one.
"Are you quite sure, Miss? The emerald-green?" Stevenson asked her.
"Yes, the emerald-green," Helena replied. "It is only an informal dinner party among friends, Stevenson, I need not outshine anyone."
Hesitantly, Stevenson helped Helena to put on her gown, and then Helena settled down at the dressing table to let Stevenson do her hair. Helena managed to seriously displease her maid by telling her that a hairstyle to match the simplicity of her dress would do. Being new in Berkeley Square, Stevenson still thought it necessary to show off her skill, probably to justify the enormous wages Captain Erpingham was paying her – but Helena refused to take part in that scheme. There would be no elaborate curls or plaits tonight, but a plain, simple hairdo, just the thing the Carmichaels were accustomed to seeing on Helena.
Stevenson was adding the finishing touches to Helena's hair, when her aunt entered her room to see how she was doing. Aunt Charlotte herself was in her finest clothes, and she clearly disapproved of Helena's taste for simplicity. She only stopped her censure when Helena asked her whether she thought she would make a bad impression on the Carmichaels.
"You forget they used to know me as Mrs Montagu's companion," she said. "I do not want to show off in front of them, you know."
"Maybe you are right," Aunt Charlotte admitted. "Besides, you look very pretty anyway, and I suppose your friends will be pleased to see you no matter what you wear. Enjoy yourself, my dear!" With these words, she left to keep her own appointment for the evening.
Stevenson was to escort Helena to the Carmichaels' lodgings and to pick her up there later in the evening, but as a porter assisted Helena in getting out of the carriage, he told Stevenson that she need not do so.
"Mrs Carmichael says she will see to it that Miss Erpingham reaches her home safely," he said, and Helena therefore dismissed Stevenson for the evening. She was taken to a small but comfortable sitting-room, where the Carmichaels were waiting for her.
Flora reached out both her hands as she welcomed her in her home. "Of course, you know this is not my home," she said. "But it is very comfortable nevertheless, quite sufficient for our needs while we are here. It would not do to live here permanently, of course, but we will return to Bath before long. I got our landlady's cook to prepare our dinner for us – I suppose it is nothing in comparison to what you get in Berkeley Square, but I hope you will like it." There was a nervous ring to Flora's voice, and Helena suspected that Flora really thought she had become too fine for her old friends, and thought the less of them because their lodgings in London did not meet with the Berkeley Square standard.
"Flora," she therefore said, "never mind what I may or may not get in Berkeley Square. One thing is for certain, I have not had your company for a while, which is why I have come here tonight. I have come to enjoy a pleasant evening with old friends, and you need not fear that I shall censure you or your accommodation in any way."
"Oh, I do hope you will enjoy yourself," Flora said with a smile, still sounding nervous. "If you do not, it will be no fault of ours, I am sure."
Flora then invited Helena to take a seat on the sofa, and they were exchanging the latest gossip, while Mr Carmichael went to the window and looked out.
"Are you expecting some more guests?" Helena asked when Mr Carmichael had not moved away from the window for more than five minutes.
"One more guest," Flora said. "He should arrive soon."
"He just has arrived," Mr Carmichael said and turned away from the window.
"Good," Flora said, "for I would hate to have an excellent dinner spoilt because one of our guests did not come in time."
There were voices in the corridor, and then the door to the sitting-room was opened. Helena thought she was going to faint when she saw who the missing guest was.
"Mr….Mr Davies," she whispered. She had feared she might throw herself into his arms upon seeing him again, but in fact she felt so weak that, had she tried to move towards him, her legs would have given way under her. Helena felt that Philip Davies had never been as handsome as he was at the moment. He was standing there; not at all surprised to meet her, it seemed, and the look he gave her was like an embrace.
"Miss Erpingham," he said with a warm smile, and bowed.
"I…I had no idea you were in London," Helena managed to say.
"I admit I had the advantage there," Philip answered with a smile, swiftly moving towards her, taking her hand and kissing it. "I had a clue, at least." His eyes seemed to take in every little detail about her, and Helena fervently wished she had let Stevenson have her way. "You are staying with your uncle in Berkeley Square, I hear," he continued.
Such empty words, Helena thought. Then she realised that Philip resorted to polite small-talk to make her more comfortable with his presence - he wanted to give her the chance to recover from the shock of seeing him so unexpectedly.
"Yes, I am staying with my aunt and uncle in Berkeley Square," she said and added, with a faint smile, "They are very good to me."
"I am glad to hear it," Philip said, looking into her eyes. "It is just what you deserve, after all you have been through."
Flora broke the spell by announcing that dinner was served, and remembering his duty to his hostess, Philip took her arm and led her into the adjoining dining room, while Mr Carmichael led Helena to the table.
"How is Jeremy," Helena asked as they were all seated and a maidservant was placing the first course on the table.
"He is in good health, thank you," Philip said and smiled. "He is very capable of ordering his poor old father about."
Helena laughed. "Did you take him to London with you?"
"No, I did not. It would not be wise, I think, to let him undertake such a journey so soon after his illness."
"Not wise at all," Mr Carmichael agreed. "He could suffer a serious relapse."
"I thought as much," Philip said. "This is why I left him in Bath, in my sister's care."
"I am certain Mrs Howard will take good care of him," Helena said. "What about Mrs Montagu? Is she staying in Pulteney Street all by herself, then?"
"I do not know," Philip said. "I suppose she will leave Bath before long, or she may already have done so. My aunt and I are at odds with each other."
"Oh dear!" Helena exclaimed.
"It is not your fault, Miss Erpingham," Philip said. "Please do not feel guilty for anything that may have happened between my aunt and me."
"I cannot help but think about the poor woman's loneliness, and feel bad about it," Helena said.
"Do not," Philip said pointedly. "Her loneliness is her own doing. Had she treated you as she ought, you might still be with her. Any pity on your part is wasted on her."
"Yet, I owe her a great deal," Helena said quietly.
"It does you credit to think about my aunt in such a way," Philip said. "But she will not waste a thought on you now that you are gone – nor did she do so while you were still with her, you can rely on that. Believe me, there is no reason for you to feel guilty."
Helena gave him a sad smile, but did not dwell on the topic any longer. Instead, she began to discuss the play they had seen with Flora, and compared Mr Kean's Shylock to the performance of some other actor Flora had seen in an Edinburgh production of The Merchant of Venice.
Even while Helena was talking to Flora, she felt Philip's eyes on her. The bond between them was unmistakeable. Helena wondered what the Carmichaels might think, seeing them behave as they did – Philip hardly speaking to anyone but Helena, and not able to take his eyes off her, whereas she, Helena, desperately tried to keep the conversation going and to amuse her hostess, while her thoughts were so far from the topic at hand. The only coherent thought Helena was capable of at the moment was the thought of Philip. Whatever he said and did mattered, whatever any of the Carmichaels remarked had to be repeated at least once to be noticed. Her feelings and thoughts in such turmoil, Helena did not notice the amused glances that Mr Carmichael and his wife exchanged across the table. They were well aware of what was going on, and had there been an excuse to leave the lovebirds alone, they would most likely have made use of it. As it was, they tactfully tried to keep up the semblance of a dinner party, and did not take it amiss that their guests had their minds somewhere else.
Having finished dinner, Flora took Helena back to the sitting room while the gentlemen remained in the dining room to have their glass of port.
"Now, how did you like your surprise," Flora asked Helena as they were seated on the sofa.
"You planned this, did you not?" Helena asked, unable to feel offended that her friends had played such a trick on her.
"Partly," Flora admitted. "Mr Davies asked me not to tell you that you would meet him here. Had it not been for that promise, I would have warned you. I hope you are not angry with me."
"Not at all," Helena assured her. "The encounter was unexpected, but not at all distasteful to me."
"I noticed that," Flora laughed. "You are very fond of Mr Davies, aren't you?"
Helena smiled, but did not say anything.
"You can trust me, you know," Flora said. "Whatever you say to me now will stay between the two of us, I promise."
"I am more than just fond of him," Helena said quietly.
"I am glad," Flora said, with a smile. "It means you will be settled in Bath after all."
"Flora!" Helena protested.
"Oh, let me indulge in my dreams," Flora said laughingly. "You must admit it would be an excellent match."
Sooner than expected, the gentlemen joined them, and they spent the rest of the evening playing whist. Helena did not get much opportunity to talk to Philip then, for he appeared to concentrate on his cards most of the time, and Flora, who was determined to win, forced her to concentrate on hers.
When it was time to leave, Flora asked Philip whether he would be so kind as to escort Helena home.
"I'd feel honoured to do so," Philip replied, looking at Helena and giving her an encouraging smile. He handed her into the carriage, and took his seat next to her.
For a while, none of them spoke. Helena felt Philip's presence next to her, and was content to know that he was with her. She was determined to cherish every moment she was to spend with him. Then Philip took her hand, and although it was dark in the carriage, she knew that he was looking at her.
"I told you you had not seen the last of me yet," he said quietly.
Helena smiled. "I never doubted that," she said. "I knew that if you wanted to, you would find me."
"I have never wanted anything so much," he said. "I missed you."
"Why, sir, I was not gone so long," Helena said lightly, trying to hide her emotion.
"Too long for my taste. You should not have gone at all," Philip said, pressing her hand. Helena turned to face him. It was difficult to read his expression in the dark, so the only way she could judge his sincerity was his tone of voice.
"It was not easy to leave Bath," she said quietly. "I have grown so fond of the place."
"Oh, Bath does grow on one, doesn't it?" Philip said, in the same light tone that Helena had used herself before. "Say, are you very angry with me for not letting you know I was in London?" There was an anxious ring in his voice.
"No, I am not angry. But I was quite taken aback when I saw you at first. I felt quite faint."
"I could see you did," he said. "I was glad you had a doctor near you – as Mrs Carmichael suggested when we talked about the matter. You looked pale, and stunned…and yet incredibly beautiful." He looked out of the carriage window. "We are nearly there," he said, with a touch of sadness in his voice. "May I call on you tomorrow?"
"Of course you may. I shall be glad to introduce you to my aunt and uncle," Helena said.
"I shall be glad to meet them," he said. "Though I was wondering whether I could see you alone, Helena."
"Why?" Helena asked, her heart beating wildly. At the same time she felt stupid for questioning the obvious.
"To say all the things that I cannot say tonight," he said. "This is neither the right place nor the right time – I am not going to say anything as important in a hackney coach at half past eleven in the evening."
The coach stopped in front of her uncle's house, and Philip helped her step down from the coach. He escorted her to the door. "Shall I see you tomorrow?" he asked anxiously.
"Yes, you will," Helena said quietly. For a moment, it seemed as if he was going to kiss her, but then he appeared to change his mind. With a smile, Philip rang the doorbell and turned to leave as Stevenson opened the door to let Helena in. Helena watched him get into the carriage and, as the carriage drove away, realised that from the first moment he had got hold of her hand, Philip had not let go of it until he had left the carriage. A warm feeling took hold of her. She loved Philip, and he loved her. If Philip should ask her to marry him tomorrow, she decided, and after what he had said to her in the carriage there could not be any doubt he would, she would accept him. Whether his family liked it or not, she would marry him.
She followed Stevenson upstairs to her room, got ready for the night and lay down on her bed. Yet, it took hours until she finally fell asleep.
Philip, too, found it hard to go to sleep that night. He was certain that Helena loved him – her reaction on seeing him at the Carmichaels' had told him as much. The look in her eyes, and the happy smile… no one could act as well, Philip thought. He was amazed at himself – how he had managed to spend an entire evening in her company, and actually be alone with her in a carriage without taking her in his arms and never letting go again was a mystery to him. He had been inclined to do so, at first, when he had taken his seat next to Helena in the carriage but, surprised at his own courage – one might even say impudence – he had only taken her hand. She had not withdrawn it. Even though he had kept her hand in his all the time, she had not even tried to draw away from him.
At her front door, he had been reluctant to let her go. It had taken all his resolve to keep him from kissing her – which might have been disastrous. What her uncle would say upon hearing about such conduct was something Philip did not even want to imagine. He depended on Captain Erpingham's goodwill to convince Helena to marry him, should she still have scruples concerning his family. It was, however, unlikely that Captain Erpingham would support the cause of a man who had been caught stealing kisses from his niece, in the street and for everyone to see, even if it had been nearly midnight.
It was dawn when Philip finally drifted off to sleep.
"Do sit down, Helena, you are making me nervous," Aunt Charlotte exclaimed as Helena restlessly paced around in the drawing room. "What has got into you, my dear?"
"Aunt," Helena said, with a happy sigh, "Mr Davies is in London!"
"Is he? That is good news," Aunt Charlotte said. "And you expect him to come for a visit?"
"He promised to do so, yesterday evening when he took me home."
"He took you home? Was he with the Carmichaels then?"
"Yes, he dined with them and escorted me home."
"What about Stevenson? I told her she was to pick you up!"
"Aunt, it was not Stevenson's fault," Helena said defensively. "Mrs Carmichael said she would see to it that I got home safely, and therefore I sent her home and told her she need not come. She only did what I told her."
"Driving around London at night, with no one but a gentleman to bear you company," Aunt Charlotte said strictly. "What were you thinking, Helena?"
"I had no idea that Mr Davies would take me home, Aunt. I thought Mrs Carmichael would send a servant with me. But then she asked Mr Davies. I have to add, Aunt, that Mr Davies has behaved with perfect propriety. He … he is not one to take liberties."
Aunt Charlotte smiled. "I suppose you would not have minded his taking liberties."
"Aunt!" Helena was shocked, while Aunt Charlotte chuckled.
"My dear, I know the symptoms when I see them," she said. "Never mind, from what you have told me I take it that Mr Davies is a respectable man. I cannot wait to see him for myself."
That chance came a couple of minutes later, when Robson announced "Mr Davies to see Miss Erpingham".
Helena's glance at the mirror did not escape her aunt's notice, and made her smile.
"No need to be nervous," she said calmly, while Helena sat down on the sofa, trying to look unconcerned and failing miserably.
How could I have forgotten how handsome he is, Helena thought as Philip entered the room and made his bow. She rose, and introduced him to her aunt.
"So we finally meet, Mr Davies," Aunt Charlotte said. "I must say I have already heard a great deal about you. My husband has praised you in the highest terms."
"You have already met my uncle?" Helena asked, taken aback. "Where?"
"I had the honour of making Captain Erpingham's acquaintance," Philip said with a smile. "At White's, the day before yesterday. I ought to have told you, of course."
"So everyone except myself knew that you were in London?" Helena asked.
"I did not know it," Aunt Charlotte said placidly. "But I am pleasantly surprised. Have you come to London on business, sir?"
"It is more of a private matter, really," Philip said. "But some business is attached to it. – Is your husband at home, Mrs Erpingham? I would like to speak to him, if it is at all possible."
Aunt Charlotte rose. "I will go to the study and see whether he can join us," she said. "No use to send any of the servants there, he will hardly listen to them when he is absorbed in his accounts." With these words, she left the room, and Helena doubted that she would be back soon. Philip seemed to think so, too, for the moment Aunt Charlotte had left the room, he got up from his seat and went over to the sofa, where Helena sat.
"Do not look at me so angrily," he said, sitting down next to Helena and taking her hand. "I did not know whether the Carmichaels would be able to arrange a meeting between us, and the only one I could count on apart from them was your uncle. This is why I have sought him out."
"You could have told me yesterday, when I said I'd introduce you to my aunt and uncle."
He kissed her hand. "I am sorry," he said. "I have deserved your reproach, I admit that. But we do not have much time to ourselves, I think – do you really want to waste it by scolding me?"
He looked so very much like a repentant Jeremy at that moment that Helena began to laugh. "How can I be angry with you when you look at me this way?" she asked.
"That's better," he said, smiling. "Helena, ever since I met you…I know this sounds awfully commonplace, but so it is … ever since I met you, I have become conscious that something has been missing in my life, and some time ago I came to realise that you are that missing part. Will you marry me?"
This is my cue, Helena thought. This is where I ought to say "Yes, gladly", and throw myself in his arms. But I cannot. Why can't I?
"Helena?" He looked at her anxiously. "Is anything wrong?"
"No," Helena said. "There is nothing wrong. I hoped…I wished you would ask me that question, and I had made up my mind already, but…now I do not know what to say. What about your family, Philip? What if they hate me? What if they think I only married you for mercenary reasons?"
"Is that the truth? Would you only consider marrying me for mercenary reasons?" he asked, looking at her earnestly.
"No," Helena exclaimed. "I really love you, but…but what will people think?"
"Helena, if we love each other, never mind what people may think."
"I do not care about the people, but I do care about your family," Helena said. "Your aunt…"
With a sigh, Philip let go of Helena's hands. "My aunt has no say in my personal affairs," he said. "I have told her as much. I have also told her that I will marry you, despite her opposition. You will have to consider her notions of marriage, too – she hates marriage, and will do anything to prevent it if she can. Her own marriage, as she may have told you, was not very happy. Besides, your marrying me will take you away from her – that, too, may have been a reason for her to say what she did. As to the rest of my family – no one will censure you, Helena. No one."
"What about Jeremy?"
"Jeremy loves you!" Philip said. "He already loves you as if you were his mother."
"Your brother and sister?"
"Emma likes you very much, Helena, and if there is one person in the world who knows what it is like to be Aunt Montagu's companion, it is she. John…John has seen me suffer all these years, and he will be glad to see me happy. There will be no objection from him, I can guarantee that. Helena, do marry me!" He got hold of her hands again. "Please." He smiled. "I am not above begging, as you see."
"You are laughing at me," he said, in mock annoyance. "I am laying my heart at your feet and you're laughing at me!" Despite his severe tone, his eyes glittered humorously. "What do you say, Helena?" he said, more softly.
She looked into his eyes, and finally her misgivings were gone. "I will marry you," she said. "Gladly." Helena might have said more, but the moment she had uttered the last word, Philip drew her in his arms and kissed her. His kisses made her forget her surroundings, until the sound of an opening door brought her to her senses. Getting up from the sofa, she saw her uncle standing in the doorway. Helena got ready for a sermon, but there was none.
"To the point as always, Mr Davies?" he simply asked with a smile. "My niece seems to have accepted your offer then."
"I am happy to say that she did," Philip said with a sheepish smile.
"Helena, my dear, why don't you go and tell your aunt the news?" Captain Erpingham asked. "I need to have a word or two with your husband-to-be."
Glad to escape an awkward situation, but sorry to leave Philip to bear the brunt of it, Helena left the room.
"Do take a seat," Captain Erpingham said to Philip. "It seems we are going to see a great deal of each other, in the weeks to come."
Philip sat down on the sofa again. "Sir, I have to offer my apologies…" he began slowly.
"For what?" Captain Erpingham asked, with a smile. "I was young once, too, and not likely to miss such an opportunity as this, either. It is I who has to apologise. I should not have burst in like that."
Philip laughed, relieved that Captain Erpingham did not seem to hold his conduct against him.
"Have you had time to discuss such things as the marriage date yet?" Captain Erpingham inquired.
"No, we did not," Philip said, "but I would like the wedding to take place soon – or do you think we should wait?"
"I see no reason why you should wait longer than necessary," Captain Erpingham said. "Once the marriage settlements are drawn up, you can lead Helena to the altar immediately. I hope you will forgive my mentioning the less romantic part of the business."
"Certainly," Philip said.
"I have come to love the girl like a daughter of my own," Captain Erpingham said. "Her father did not leave her anything, I am afraid, which, I think, has led to opposition from your family."
"My aunt. No one else opposes the marriage," Philip said.
"I do not think your aunt will oppose the marriage, either, once she finds out that I mean to give my niece ten thousand pounds on her marriage," Captain Erpingham said dryly.
Philip looked at Captain Erpingham, dumbstruck. "Ten…thousand?" he finally managed to say.
"Do you fancy this is not enough?" Captain Erpingham asked.
"Not enough? Sir, I did not expect…"
"You did not expect my niece to have a single penny, you mean," Captain Erpingham said. "Well, had it been for her father, this would indeed be so. But since I have no children of my own, I can spend my money on my brother's children – at least those he has left destitute. It does not look as if Lady Woodward will need my assistance. Helena will not be penniless – I think this will be a powerful argument in her favour."
The door opened, and Mrs Erpingham and Helena came back into the drawing room.
"Mr Davies, let me offer my felicitations," Mrs Erpingham said. "Helena has told me everything! How happy I am for her! – My dear, we will start buying your wedding clothes tomorrow."
"Aunt!" Helena protested. "You have already bought me so much…"
"…that it will not matter if I buy you some more," Mrs Erpingham finished the sentence. "My dear, consider me. I have no daughter of my own, and this is the only chance I have to buy a trousseau for a young bride. Do not deny me this!"
Helena gave Philip a helpless look. "My aunt and uncle are generous to a fault," she said quietly.
"Never mind, girl," Captain Erpingham said and put his arm around Helena's shoulders. "I told you what we give is given gladly. – Now, Mr Davies, I will await your man of business by tomorrow. Will you do us the honour of dining with us tonight?"
After accepting the invitation, Philip took his leave. Helena escorted him to the door, where he kissed her hand once more.
"I will see you at dinner time," he said, smiling at her.
"Did my uncle…was he very angry?" Helena asked anxiously.
"No, he was not," Philip said and laughed. "No need to be afraid, Helena. Everything will be fine."
Then he left, to go and see his solicitor, and to write letters to his family and friends. Jeremy needed to know that his father's quest had been successful, and that he was to expect a new mother soon.
During the following hours Helena felt as if she were in a dream. Had not her aunt and uncle talked about her engagement as well, Helena would have believed that she had imagined the scene that had passed between her and Philip.
While her aunt was happily making a list of everything they had to buy for the wedding – clothes, linen, china, silver, jewellery and whatever a young bride could possibly wish for – Helena sat down at the writing table to inform her brothers and sister of the upcoming event. The letter to the boys was easy – Helena was sure they would be happy for her, and she did not doubt that they would love Philip, once they had had the chance to meet him.
It was the missive to Grace that gave her trouble. She was not certain whether Grace and Sir James would welcome Philip quite as readily, and that thought pained her. If she told them under what circumstances she had first met Philip, no doubt Sir James would disapprove. Philip was perfectly eligible – that was not the problem. But Sir James would certainly not relish the thought that his sister-in-law married a man under whose roof she had lived for several weeks before they had been engaged, let alone married, and the fact that nothing improper had ever taken place between them would not weigh with him.
So she only mentioned that her fiancé, Mr Davies, was a widower with a son, residing in Bath, and that she had met him during her stay there. Luckily she had never mentioned his name to Grace before – whenever she had mentioned him in the few letters she had written to her, she had referred to him as "Mrs Montagu's nephew".
When Philip returned to Berkeley Square to dine with them, he told her how he had spent the day – writing letters, like her, but also thinking about their future as husband and wife.
One suggestion shocked Helena, as the thought had never occurred to her. He wanted to give up the house in Pulteney Street.
"But why?" Helena asked. "I think the house is very comfortable – you need not give it up for my sake, Philip."
"The house is comfortable, I admit," Philip said earnestly. "But, to tell you the truth, I am not very fond of it. There are memories connected with it which I'd rather leave behind me, especially now."
"You are talking about … Jeremy's mother, I suppose," Helena said. Philip nodded.
"It used to be her home," he said. "She chose the house, and I was only too happy to buy it for her. The house as you have seen it was entirely her doing – the hangings, the pictures, the furnishings – everything. Of course we could throw all these things out and start a new household, but it would still be her house – the house where she died, too. I do not want you to live there, Helena. Call me superstitious, but this is how I feel."
"It is your choice, of course," Helena said. "Where would you like to live, then? I have to say I am quite fond of Bath."
"So am I," Philip said. "Especially since many of my friends live there. I have told my solicitor to make enquiries, and to tell me if anything suitable turns up either in Bath or the surrounding country."
"I would prefer Bath, so I can visit Mrs Carmichael whenever I feel like it," Helena said.
Philip laughed. "I will see what I can do," he said.
After dinner, they were sitting in the drawing room, playing a rubber of whist. Helena's happiness was complete – it did her good to see how well Philip and her family got along with each other. Uncle Erpingham obviously thought highly of Philip, and Aunt Charlotte seemed to be fond of him, too.
Just before Philip left, they had a moment alone with each other. He took Helena into his arms.
"I mean to give you something," he said, smiling, drawing her closer and kissing her.
"A kiss?" Helena asked, breathlessly.
"That too," he said laughingly. "And there is more where that came from. But there is something else. Give me your hand."
Before Helena could ask any more questions, he had seized her hand and had put a ring on her finger. "Not a family heirloom, I am afraid," he said, grinning, "but I hope it will do for an engagement ring."
"It is beautiful," Helena sighed, looking at the ring, leaning on Philip's shoulder. "And it fits perfectly! Thank you so much! Did you buy it today?"
"Among all the things I had to do today," he said, "I still remembered to buy you this ring." He laughed. "I have sent an announcement to the Gazette, you know. All your acquaintance will drop in tomorrow to congratulate you, or at least to satisfy their curiosity. You will need an engagement ring to show off."
"How glad I am that you remembered it," Helena said, with a mischievous smile. "I confess I did not think of it – although I wished I might have a fiancé to show off."
"That cannot be done, I am afraid," he said, suddenly looking earnest. "I will be closeted with your uncle all day, I suppose. But I will contrive to see you somehow, do not worry."
Another kiss, and he left. Helena retired to her room, but however hard she tried, she could not sleep for a very long time. Today's events were repeated over and over in her mind, and when she finally drifted off to sleep, it was with visions of her future happiness.
The following days were so filled with activity that Helena hardly had time to breathe. Her aunt took her on shopping expeditions every morning, and although Helena was asked to give her opinion on the various items her aunt intended to buy for her, she felt that Aunt Charlotte did not set much store by it.
When they were not in town, honouring the most modish establishments with their presence, they were at home, receiving visitors and satisfying their curiosity regarding the circumstances of Helena's engagement. The notice in the Gazette had sent many of her father's former friends to Berkeley Square, friends who had not, Helena remembered bitterly, cared sixpence for her ever since her father had died.
Philip was with her whenever he could, but was very busy – the marriage settlement had to be drawn up, and the purchase of a new house was of foremost importance to him.
Had Helena still had any doubts regarding Philip's family, they would have been allayed by the arrival of several letters. Mrs Howard was one of the first to congratulate her and welcome her into the family, and Jeremy had added a couple of very proper lines to her letter.
"In his best Sunday handwriting too," Philip had said when Helena had shown him Jeremy's missive. "He must be excessively fond of you. I told you so."
"I suspect the words are not his own, though," Helena had said, with a smile.
"Definitely not," Philip said. "No doubt you will get another letter from him, in which he will express his pleasure in no uncertain terms."
This was what happened – the next day another letter from Bath arrived, and this time Jeremy used no restraint in his writing. He told Helena that one of his dearest wishes had come true, and that he could not wait for her arrival in Bath. He added that Helena would make his father just as happy as he deserved to be, and that he, Jeremy, would do everything in his power to make her happy as well. His new mother should never have reason to regret her decision to marry his father. Jeremy was disappointed that he could not witness his father's wedding, but trusted that his father would know how to go about it even without his assistance. Helena was moved by such eloquence – knowing that Jeremy was not fond of writing, she justly appreciated his effort, and her heart went out to him.
Philip's brother, too, wrote a letter of congratulations, welcomed her in his family, and invited Helena and Philip to spend some days in his house in Wiltshire before going back to Bath.
I had planned to travel to London to attend my brother's wedding, especially since I am eager to meet the lady who has finally made him give up his solitary ways. Unfortunately, the boys have contracted influenza, and leaving my wife by herself in such a situation is not to be thought of. Be assured, madam, that my thoughts will be with you on your wedding day, and that we shall be happy to receive your visit on your journey to Bath. Mrs Davies begs me to include her best wishes in my letter – she, too, wishes you happy with all her heart.
"Do you think we should go there?" Helena asked Philip. "Certainly your sister-in-law will have enough to do with nursing her children. I do not believe your brother gave the matter enough thought."
"I will write to him and ask him," Philip said. "I would very much like you to meet John and his family. But you are right – if the children are ill, my sister-in-law will certainly excuse us for not coming to visit them just yet. In spring, perhaps, we might take Jeremy down to Wiltshire to see his cousins. What do you say to that?"
Helena felt that this plan made much more sense than Mr John Davies', and asked Philip to suggest it to his brother without delay.
No word arrived from Mrs Montagu. This did not surprise Helena at all, probably she had ceased to exist in Mrs Montagu's eyes the moment Philip had officially announced their engagement. Cecy Harrington told Helena in one of her letters that Mrs Montagu had returned to Newark House, and that she was looking for a new companion. Whoever that person would be, she could be sure of Helena's sympathy.
Being absorbed with her wedding preparations, Helena had hardly any time to wonder why she had not heard from Grace yet. Even the boys had acknowledged her engagement – they had sent her short letters, expressing their desire to meet Philip as soon as possible, and wishing her happy, but no word had come from Grace. Even though Helena had learned not to expect too much from her sister, her indifference still had the power to hurt her.
One morning, however, Helena was just preparing to go for a walk in the park with Philip when Robson announced Sir James and Lady Woodward. They entered the drawing room, looking grave.
For the first couple of minutes, none of them mentioned Helena's impending marriage. They exchanged pleasantries with Aunt Charlotte, and Sir James did his best to make himself agreeable to Uncle Erpingham, but they did not pay Helena much notice.
Aunt Charlotte, amazed at such coldness, finally said, "But I am sure you must have come to see Helena. I trust you have heard the happy news – Helena did send you a letter, after all."
"I did receive Helena's letter," Grace said and turned to Helena. "I expect felicitations are in order. I certainly wish you happy, my dear, but I beg you to reconsider your decision."
Puzzled, Helena replied, "I do not see why any reconsideration might be necessary, Grace." A horrible suspicion dawned on her. Had Mrs Montagu written to Grace or Sir James, to protest against her engagement? Had she made it plain to them that Philip's family would never countenance the match?
"I understand your wish for security," Grace continued, "and no doubt Mr Davies can offer you a comfortable home. However, do not sacrifice the best years of your life to a man so much older than yourself. No matter how excellent his health may be at the moment, it is only a question of time until old age will take its toll."
Helena caught her aunt's eye, and had to suppress a fit of laughter. Grace had obviously misunderstood something.
"Indeed," she simply said, trying not to look at her aunt or uncle any more. "But then, in every marriage one ought to consider that old age will, at one point, take its toll. Believe me, I am quite prepared to stay with Mr Davies, for better or for worse."
Sir James stepped in to assist his wife. "Helena, we simply do not want you to waste yourself on someone who is merely looking for a companion – or a nurse."
"Oh, I do hope I mean more to Mr Davies than that," Helena said lightly. At this moment, Robson announced Mr Davies. As Philip entered the room, Helena's eyes remained fixed on Grace and Sir James. She wanted to see how they reacted on realising their error. They did not realise it at once – actually, while Philip greeted Helena's uncle and aunt, Sir James whispered to his wife, "The widower's son, I presume."
Philip had obviously heard the remark, for he turned to Sir James, his eyes sparkling with mischief.
"Sir, you are wrong, I am afraid," he said pleasantly. "I am the widower himself."
Watching her sister blush furiously, Helena came to the rescue, and introduced Philip to her sister and brother-in-law.
For the remainder of their stay, the Woodwards were remarkably silent, and they left soon afterwards, while Philip and Helena went out in the direction of St James' Park. Only when Grace and Sir James were safely out of sight, Helena burst out laughing.
Philip watched her, with an amused smile. "I do wonder," he said, "what you told them to make them believe I was an old man?"
"I have no idea," Helena said, still laughing. "Indeed, I have not! I have told Grace that I was going to marry a gentleman from Bath – a widower with a son."
Philip laughed. "And what picture, I ask you, would you have, being presented with such a description and not knowing me?"
"I do not know," Helena said.
"I do," Philip said with another laugh. "I am well enough acquainted with Bath to know that most widowed gentlemen residing there are past the age of fifty. Could you not have told your sister that I was only thirty-five?"
"I could, but I must have forgotten," Helena said.
"Wicked creature," Philip said. "You forgot it on purpose, do not deny it."
"There is no point in denying it, since you seem to have found me out," Helena said laughingly. "Do you still want to marry me?"
"Even more so," he said, grinning. "I love your sense of humour."
"Fine," Helena said. "And you are not merely looking for a companion to make the sufferings of old age endurable?" She could not help but giggle at the thought.
"Not exactly, no," Philip said. "Although I find the thought of growing old with you quite appealing."
Philip's man of business was working very efficiently, and soon he was able to accomplish the purchase of a house in Laura Place, Bath. This was generally felt to be an improvement – the house was larger than the one in Pulteney Street, which Philip meant to sell as soon as the new house was ready to receive them. In the meantime, they were to stay in Pulteney Street, even though the thought made Philip uncomfortable.
The marriage settlements being agreed on, the wedding clothes being safely stored in Berkeley Square, and a special licence being obtained, there were no more obstacles in their way to finally getting married. Therefore, one morning in early March, Helena found herself getting out of her uncle's carriage in front of St George's, Hanover Square. Aunt Charlotte assisted her in arranging her dress, while Uncle Erpingham stood by, smiling benevolently at his niece.
"How can I ever thank you for what you have done for me?" Helena asked them, swallowing her tears. "You have been so kind – much too kind to me!"
"There now, my dear," Aunt Charlotte said, noticing the tearfulness in Helena's voice. "Imagine what Mr Davies will think, if you enter the church on your wedding day with tears in your eyes."
Helena embraced her aunt. "I will never forget you, whatever may happen," she said.
"I hope you won't," Aunt Charlotte said with a smile. "I shall be looking forward to your letters, my dear, and if ever you need advice, be sure to ask me. Now smile, Helena. This is supposed to be the happiest day of your life!"
"It is," Helena said with a radiant smile, and, taking her uncle's arm, prepared to enter the church.
The wedding ceremony was nearly over before Helena had become conscious of what was going on. Whenever she tried to remember her wedding afterwards, she could only recall Philip putting the ring on her finger and saying his vows. She remembered being extremely nervous, as if something could still happen to separate them. She also remembered worrying whether she would make any mistakes, and her relief when the ceremony was over and she had not made a fool of herself.
There were not many guests at their wedding. The Howards had stayed in Bath because Jeremy's health did not permit them to travel all the way to London – and leaving him behind was out of the question. Mrs Montagu did not wish to attend, certainly. John Davies and his wife, who had wanted to come, had been prevented by their children's illness.
Still, there were enough friends and relations to share their happiness. Uncle Erpingham had fetched Paul and Frederick from Eton, so they could meet their new brother and be present at their sister's wedding. Philip had become popular with them in an instant when he had taken them to see a show at Astley's Amphitheatre, and had promised them that they might spend their summer holidays in Bath.
The Carmichaels played an important part in their wedding – Mr Carmichael as Philip's best man, and Flora as Helena's matron of honour.
Even Sir James and Grace attended the wedding, if only to avoid gossip. They were reconciled to Helena's choice, once they had found out that Philip was, firstly, not quite as old as they had suspected and, secondly, rich enough to make up for his lack of title. Grace had not been very happy when she had heard of Helena's dowry. She considered herself cheated – after all, she might have had use for those ten thousand pounds as well – but she bore with the news with an air of dignity.
After the wedding breakfast, Philip and Helena set out towards Bath. They had not planned a wedding tour to take place immediately after the wedding, but Philip had promised to take Helena to Brighton in spring, when Jeremy would stay with his uncle and aunt in Wiltshire, and Helena had been well pleased with the scheme.
Helena leant back in her seat, and closed her eyes for a moment. Her thoughts were in turmoil, and she wanted some time for quiet reflection. She remembered an old saying - No dog will take away the bone that is yours - and it made her smile. In her case, this had been true. So many things had happened to throw her and Philip into each other's way, that she could not help believing that they had been meant for each other. Her taking up residence with Mrs Montagu, Mrs Montagu's illness that had resulted in their sojourn in Bath, and Jeremy's illness that had made them grow even closer to each other…
"A penny for your thoughts," Philip said, and as Helena opened her eyes she saw his gaze fixed on her.
"I do not think they'd be worth that penny," Helena said.
"But you were smiling," Philip pointed out.
"Of course I was," Helena said. "Am I not supposed to show my happiness?"
"Any time you want," Philip said with a laugh, and kissed her. "Tired?"
"A little," Helena admitted. He pulled her towards him.
"Lean on me and try to get some sleep, then," he said. "We have a long way before us."
"I know," Helena said, laughingly. "Fifty years of marriage at least!" Leaning on Philip's shoulder, she closed her eyes again, and soon she was asleep, with Philip silently watching over her.
~~~ The End ~~~