I hope you enjoy “The Question”, it’s a brand new story in our Follyjohn Series — check out the Follyjohn Series Collection here.
Hayford House, Kent, 1817
In just one week, Charlotte would be 23. A spinster.
Glancing over the top of the newspaper, Bessie narrowed her gaze on her sister. Charlotte sat opposite her in a chair which was pressed as close to the library fire as was safe. Even in midsummer Charlotte felt the cold.
She’s pretty enough, Bessie decided. Why, if we spend a little money and buy the right clothes, Charlotte might become a diamond. She could win anyone she chose in the ton. Of course, they’d have to do something about Charlotte’s freckles; such a disaster with red hair. And she would slouch, when she thought no one watched her.
All she had to do was convince Charlotte — and their mother — that they had to go to London. “Father has been gone for almost three years,” Bessie said.
Charlotte laid down her embroidery. “How quickly the time goes.”
“What would you like for your birthday?”
“You mustn’t spend your money on me,” Charlotte said, looking up. “There’s nothing I want.”
“According to The Morning Chronicle, Lord Middlebrough is staying with the Fenchams,” Bessie leaned over to Charlotte and tapped the item in the newspaper.
“It’s a large house party,” she went on. “No doubt the Fenchams have hopes — they mean to rid themselves of that bean-pole of a daughter. Charlotte, don’t you think it time you and Middlebrough settled matters? He may decide he’ll seize Liz Fencham and her dowery. She’s an heiress. You are not.”
“Settled? My dear, I can’t marry him until he asks me.” Charlotte smiled. “That’s the way it’s done.”
“When will he ask, and what if he doesn’t?” Bessie leaned forward. “What if he offers for some other lady like the Fencham girl? He’s shown no signs of courting you in all these years. And we’ve only Father’s word for it he had an agreement with old Lord Middlebrough. With both Father and old Middlebrough gone, we need to do something.”
“I’m sure he’ll ask when he’s ready.”
Too complacent by half, Bessie thought. But pink had flooded Charlotte’s face. Bessie realized that it would be cruel to persist, but suddenly Bessie had had enough.
Time to face facts. “That’s the thing.” She kept her voice calm. “He’s never shown the slightest interest in courting you. He’s pleasant enough, but if he wants you he should make shift to fix his interest. We must stop our air dreaming habits and force Middlebrough to the point — if he won’t come up to scratch we must know it.”
“That’s so vulgar!”
“No, it’s common sense,” Bessie said, reaching out to pat Charlotte’s arm. “We must speak of this, Charlotte. Your birthday is almost here. We’re long out of mourning. Mother won’t contact Middlebrough and ask him his intentions. If any,” she added, not bothering to keep skepticism from her tone.
Charlotte shook her head, even though Bessie spoke the truth.
“It’s foolish to wish Mother to bestir herself,” Bessie went on. “Father always took command — but he’s gone. We need to settle matters ourselves.”
Charlotte lifted her hands to her face. “We can’t. How could we?”
Relieved that her sister hadn’t become hysterical, Bessie laid aside the newspaper and stretched her legs towards the fire. “Father was a miser.”
She lifted her hand when Charlotte opened her mouth to speak. “No, listen. Let’s be honest. He never spent a penny if he could help it. So we know there’s money to spend, and we’ll spend it on you.”
She paused a moment and thought. “We’ve waited long enough. I’ll write to Aunt Alice. She lives in St. James’s Square in high style. Remember that she encouraged Mother to bring you out? If she agrees to have us, I’m sure she’ll agree to hold a small dinner party — and invite Middlebrough.”
Charlotte blinked. “I’m much too old for a season now.”
Bessie frowned. “That’s for later, after I’ve spoken to Middlebrough. You could join Aunt Alice in town for the little season.”
Charlotte took up her embroidery again. Unfazed by what she called Charlotte’s oh no I won’t! Face, Bessie went on. “We’ll ask Mother how much money we can spend, and how much she intends for your dowery.”
“You’ve been considering this.”
“Indeed, I have. I thought about it at Christmas. You remember that Middlesbrough was supposed to come home, but he stayed in London? We didn’t see him until the New Year. I thought then that I should call on Aunt Alice in London and ask her what’s best to do – I’m determined that you shall marry or have a season. We’ve fastened our hopes on Middlebrough long enough.”
“Bessie, you’re taking too much on yourself.”
Bessie shook her head with vehemence. “Nonsense. No one else will do it. Mother’s frozen since Father died. He always told her what to do. Now there’s no one to order her about; she does nothing at all. Someone has to take the reins in this family.”
“But you can’t —”
“Of course I can.” Bessie spoke with a confidence that she was far from feeling. Charlotte was right. She was taking too much on herself. But nothing would be done if she didn’t take matters in hand. Charlotte would be 23, then 24, and then firmly on the shelf.
All for the sake of some silly agreement their father might or might not have had with old Lord Middlebrough.
She sighed. “I don’t mean to speak ill of Father when he isn’t here to defend himself…. But you’ll admit Middlebrough’s spent precious little time here if he intends to marry you. Father might’ve spoken with old Middlebrough when he was in his cups. We must learn what he intends. Then we will know what to do.”
St. James’s Square, London
“I suppose you’ve come to beg me for a season?” Lady Drummond asked. She hugged her niece on the front steps of her home, then chuckled. “I always said that I’d sponsor both of you. How old are you now?”
Bessie grinned. “I’m 18 — I’ll wait for my season until after we fire off Charlotte.”
Lady Drummond sighed. “You may wait a while, my dear.” She frowned. “Trust Abigail to stay at home. She won’t come to London no matter how often I ask — but I thought Charlotte would come.”
Her aunt put her arm around Bessie’s shoulders. While Bessie removed her hat and pelisse, Lady Drummond ordered that tea be sent to her private sitting room.
Finally, the servants left the room, and they were alone. “Charlotte’s too embarrassed,” Bessie said. “But she’s the reason I’m here. You know that she has — or thinks she has — an understanding with Lord Middlebrough. But he’s made no shift to court her, and if we don’t look lively he’ll be snatched up by a more enterprising damsel. He’s at the Fenchams’ house party.”
“I wouldn’t wish to upset you, but…” Lady Drummond sipped her tea for a moment. “Why are you promoting this marriage? Middlebrough and Charlotte don’t suit.”
Bessie frowned. “What do you mean? Charlotte has a dowery; Middlebrough has debts. All noblemen had debts. They’ve known each other forever.”
Alice waved her hand. “Do you see Charlotte here? You don’t. She is at home in the country, with your mother. She is happy there. Middlebrough would never be comfortable rusticating year-round.”
“They’ll decide for themselves if they suit. That’s not up to me.” Bessie wished that her tone didn’t sound so plaintive but she couldn’t help it.
“What are you going to do? Bring Middlebrough up to scratch?” Lady Drummond shook her head at that.
“Would you give a small dinner party, and invite Middlebrough? I mean to speak to him. It’s usually the father of the prospective bride who asks a gentleman’s intentions. Father’s dead, so it’s up to me.”
“I intend to see Charlotte’s matter settled. Either it will be Middlebrough, or she’ll come to you for the little season if you’ll have her.”
“There’s something you’re not telling me — it’s a man, isn’t it? It always is.”
“No. At least, I hope not.” Bessie sighed. Her aunt was clever.
“I insist you tell me. What’s Charlotte been doing?”
Bessie rubbed a spot between her eyebrows. “The Hansards have a new steward, James Allen. He’s very handsome. All the village girls are mad for him — and some matrons too.”
Lady Drummond stood. Her face had paled. “A steward?! Charlotte must be all about in her head. The disgrace…”
Bessie jumped up to steady her aunt. Why had she mentioned that wretched man? “Aunt — ”
“No, no.” Lady Drummond inhaled deeply and sat down. “Don’t startle me like that, child. Now, tell me all about that man.”
Bessie’s nerves almost got the better of her when she dressed for the dinner party. She stared at her face in the mirror while her maid buttoned the back of the gown. She pinched her cheeks for color.
“Perhaps a little rouge?”
When Bessie shook her head, the maid adjusted the emerald clip in her hair and stood back to admire her. “That’s lovely, ma’am — for certain, you’ll win lots of beaus when you make your come out.”
Eyeing herself in the mirror, Bessie decided that she looked presentable. Aunt Alice had insisted she order new gowns. The pale green silk suited her.
The maid touched her arm. “Do you hear, ma’am? The guests are arriving.”
I need to be brave, Bessie told herself. I’m doing this for Charlotte. Annoyed at her unease, she took a final look in the mirror, nodded her thanks to the maid, and headed downstairs.
“There you are, Bessie — here’s Lord Middlebrough.”
Bessie had forgotten Middlebrough’s good looks. With a coat by Weston and boots by Hoby, he was the picture of an elegant Corinthian. His faultless white linen set off his dark blue eyes and raven black hair.
He beamed and advanced to greet her, with his hands outstretched. “Bessie — how wonderful to see you. I don’t get to the country often enough. Thank you for coming to London.”
Mystified by the warm greeting, Bessie took his hands and met his gaze. “Middlebrough, it’s good to see you. I know Aunt’s invitation was on short notice.”
“When Lady Drummond told me you were in London, I wouldn’t have missed this dinner for world. How are your mother and Charlotte?”
Lady Drummond had seated Middlebrough on the other side of the table, and Charlotte felt relieved. Why did he make her so nervous? She realized she looked at him too often when she caught his gaze for the third time, and he smiled. She attempted to pay attention to the young man seated on her left.
When the men returned to the drawing room after time with their port, Middlebrough approached Bessie. “Your aunt told me you want to have a quiet word with me — in private. Shall we go to the library? We can send for your maid so we maintain the proprieties.”
A fire burned in the large book-lined room. When her maid arrived, the girl curtsied to them, then seated herself beside a lamp in a far corner.
Bessie sat on the sofa and waved to Middlebrough to sit down.
“Here we are then. Go ahead Bess — open your budget. What’s to do?”
Bessie bit her lip. She had come this far.
“Harry,” she said, then recalled that she hadn’t called him Harry since he was a grubby schoolboy home for the term holidays. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Do you remember — do you ever recall your father mentioning anything about a connection between our two families?”
She told herself she wasn’t making herself understood. “Father seemed to believe that you and Charlotte were well-suited. Indeed, he said that there was an arrangement between the families for you to offer for her.”
He stared. She noticed that he grew a little paler.
He didn’t know…
Closing her eyes for a moment, she choked down her humiliation. “It’s all right. Father would often say things. I had to ask you… You understand, don’t you?”
He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his thighs and stared at the carpet for a long moment.
“You’re right,” he said finally, straightening. “My father said something about Charlotte being a very pretty girl and he’d like her to be part of the family. But I did not understand he expected me to court her.”
“That’s all I wanted to know — you needn’t concern yourself.” Now she’d embarrassed him.
What a disaster, she thought. “I had to ask. Mother withdrew into herself after Father’s death. Please, forget I said anything. Aunt Alice will have Charlotte up to town for the little season. She’s bound to get offers — her dowery’s healthy.”
He looked chagrined. “The family’s been depending on me to make an offer? I assume that’s why they sent you?”
Bessie shrugged. “No one sent me. I decided on my own. Father got things wrong, and I’ve embarrassed us both. No matter.”
“Of course it matters! I’m a gentleman. I won’t have it said…” he paused. “For heaven’s sake Bessie — I won’t have it said that I broke a promise and abandoned the girl.”
She blushed. Why had she spoken to him at all? She should have insisted that Charlotte come to London — or they should have forgotten about Middlebrough long since. The poor man. He wasn’t to blame for Father’s fantasy.
“If there’s something to it the family solicitor will know, depend on it. I’ll call on him tomorrow and discover what he knows about the matter. If my father and yours had an agreement, there’d be document about settlements and arrangements somewhere.”
Bessie winced. Worse and worse — he intended involving his solicitor. She groaned.
He stood. “I’m glad you told me. But Bessie, if I were to offer for one of you girls… I would offer for you and not for Charlotte.”
With that parting shot, he bowed to her and left the library. She stared at the closed library doors.
As Bessie expected, Middlebrough left the house within half an hour. Until then, he was all pleasantness and amiability. No one would ever know she had upset him, she thought.
“What happened?” Lady Drummond dragged Bessie into her private sitting room as soon as the last guest had left. “Did you ask him?”
Bessie sat and put her face in her hands. Then she told herself not to be missish and took her hands down. “Yes, I did. He didn’t know about any offer. His father merely said something about Charlotte — an asset to the family, or some such. But nothing beyond that. I can’t believe that I embarrassed him by asking him outright.”
Lady Drummond chuckled. “Why shouldn’t you ask him? Charlotte’s waited years. So you’ve asked, and now you know. I want you girls to come to me for the little season. We’ll make a start on Charlotte’s trousseau — she’d find someone. Don’t fret.”
She lifted her hand when Bessie protested. “You’ll come too,” she insisted. “A little gaiety will do you good. You’re turning into a proper drudge in the country.”
“I can’t leave Mother alone,” Bessie protested.
She wasn’t concerned about the little season, however.
First — she had to tell Mother and Charlotte.
Although Lady Drummond complained, Bessie insisted that she go home next morning.
“I think you don’t like my company,” her aunt said. “Stay a few more days, please.”
Bessie hugged her aunt. “You know I love your company, and I love town too. I wish I could stay, but I can’t put off telling Charlotte and Mother. They need to know.”
She was exhausted by the time they passed through Follyjohn village. She’d be home in ten minutes and still couldn’t think of a kind way to tell them. They would be so disappointed.
Unreasonable as it was, Bessie blamed Middlebrough for the mess. She rubbed her forehead. Dabbing her temples with cologne hadn’t helped her aching head. She wished for nothing more than to go to bed and sleep.
To her surprise, her mother was waiting on the front steps when the carriage drew up. The footman let down the steps and Bessie accepted his hand to climb down.
Why was Mother so pale? “What’s happened? Are you ill?”
“Bessie my dear,” her mother hugged her. “Such a miserable day to travel. Come inside and I’ll order some tea.”
Bessie knew her mother wouldn’t speak in front of the servants. “Where’s Charlotte?”
Mrs Skipwell shook her head. “In a moment, my dear.”
Charlotte must be out for a walk, Bessie decided. She handed her gloves to a footman and unpinned her hat. “Aunt Alice is well and asks me to repeat her invitation for you to come to town.”
Finally, the servants left the room.
Bessie decided that she would tell her mother immediately. She took a deep breath and confessed. “Father was wrong about Middlebrough. There never was an agreement.”
“Never mind about Middlebrough now.” Her mother twisted a silk handkerchief around her fingers. “I don’t know how to tell you… it’s a complete disaster. How could she do such a thing? She’s ruined you, absolutely ruined you, as well as herself.”
Bessie could only stare at her mother in surprise. “Tell me.”
“A couple of days after you left, I came downstairs for breakfast and Charlotte didn’t appear. I thought she might be ill. I went upstairs, and —” her mother shook her head and tears rolled down her face.
Bessie had a horrible thought. “It’s James Allen, isn’t it?”
“She left a note on her writing desk — she loves James Allen. He’s accepted a position on a large estate in Scotland.”
Clenching her hands, Mrs Skipwell pounded her knees in frustration. “That stupid, stupid girl! Saying that he’s taking her to his mother… so they can marry as soon as the banns are called.”
Bessie felt the blood drain from her face. “You think there might be no marriage?” Her mother was right. It was a complete and utter disaster. How could Charlotte do such a thing?
“So they’re not married. Very well. I’ll go to Scotland and bring her back. I’ll get there before the marriage takes place.”
Mrs Skipwell shook her head. She dried her face on the edge of her shawl. Bessie handed her her own handkerchief. “Charlotte’s past the age where she needs permission, my dear. Besides, consider. After traveling alone with Mr Allen all the way to Scotland, we can only hope that he marries her.”
Two months later, Bessie arrived back in Lady Drummond’s house in St James’s Square. Charlotte had become Mrs Allen. She’d written a happy letter to Mrs Skipwell and Bessie.
Lady Drummond took a pragmatic view of the situation. “Why worry? She’s married now. We must put a brave face on it, my dear. We might not like it, but I refuse to allow it to spoil your chances.”
Bessie knew how gossip worked, however. When Charlotte bolted with James Allen, it provided the gossips in Follyjohn Village with inspiration for years of giggles.
By now that gossip had reached town. Bessie pointed this out to her aunt, but Lady Drummond refused to acknowledge it.
“Yes there’ll always be gossip. Foolish gossip. We’ll say that Abigail approved the match; the family approved. No one can refute it. They’ll know it’s a lie, but assurance is everything. Besides, at least Mr Allen is a gentleman. His father is the second son of Lord Ruddford.”
“He is? You’re sure?”
Lady Drummond nodded. “I sent a Runner up to Scotland.”
“You sent a Bow Street runner?” Bessie gasped.
“I did. No matter what she does, Charlotte is still my niece. Now enough about Mrs Allen. Tell me, my dear. Are you ready for the little season?”
“I am,” Bessie replied. “I’d like you to hold another dinner party, and invite Lord Middlebrough.”
“I hope you’re not thinking of raking him down over Charlotte. That’s over now.”
Bessie hugged her aunt. “He said that if he were to offer for one of us, he’d offer for me and not for Charlotte. So I’ve another question to ask Lord Middlebrough.”
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