Working Title Charlotte
author Amelia Treader
1. An Unfortunate Sequence of EventsGout and dropsy plagued old Lord Pockington's last years, but it was the pneumonia he caught during the hard winter of 1811-12 that finally carried him off. A hardened gamester, he had left his estates encumbered with so much mortgage debt that the income barely covered his interest. His son and heir, John a captain in the army of occupation in Paris had similar expensive tastes in entertainment. His daughter Charlotte secretly yearned for the chance to experience the exciting life of the ton in London, but was by far the most level headed of the last of the DeVere's. No sooner had his vicar and somewhat more sober crony Dr. Answorth buried him in the churchyard than an express arrived from Paris.
John enjoyed the night life in Paris after Napoleon fled to Elba. He and his brother officers sought release from their memories of the real dangers and hardships of the Spanish campaign with the thrills of gambling, drinking and whoring late into the morning. His particular road to perdition was dice. In a desperate attempt to clear himself from his debts, he threw double or nothing hoping to sum more than double threes. He threw snake-eyes. Left with 50,000 pounds in debt and no way to pay, he quaffed his last glass of champagne then headed upstairs do to 'the honorable thing'. The gamblers below hardly noticed the bang when he blew his brains out.
A few days later the family solicitor, Mr. Cruise gathered Miss Charlotte DeVere and her friends Dr. Answorth and Mrs. Answorth together to read the will and decide what to do with the estate. The situation was dire.
“Miss DeVere, your father's estate was severely encumbered, and your brother Mr. John's debts were the last straw. I'm afraid you will have to sell Pockington Hall, its contents and grounds. The London house went years ago. Maybe we can keep some of your mother's jewels.”
“Surely my mother's portion should come to me. I can live on that.”
“Yes it should, but the interest on 10,000 pounds is hardly sufficient for the costs of the estate. To be blunt, even if we sell the Hall at a favorable price there may not be enough proceeds left over to cover the portion due you.”
Charlotte gasped, “Surely.”
“I'm sorry but until the estate is fully settled, there is nothing for you. I could give you 5000 pounds in return for your signing your portion over to me when it is finally settled. I'm confident that the settlement will not be much higher.”
Dr. Answorth hardly needed the prodding his wife and helpmate gave him to speak. “No! None of this. Miss DeVere, you can stay with us while this is sorted out. At the vicarage. I mean your father helped with my preferment and I am glad to repay the favor.”
Mrs. Answorth continued in a more coherent manner. “Miss DeVere, you know we've never had children and the rectory is so big. Dr. Answorth and I just rattle around in it. It would be a great favor if you'd come and stay with us. We'd like to have the company of young people again.”
Charlotte started to refuse, then realized that there was no way to refuse without hurting her friends. “I – I couldn't impose on you, but if you insist, I'd be happy to stay at the vicarage.”
Mrs. Answorth clapped her hands with joy. “Then it's settled, you'll move in with us. We'll make a happy family while you sell the hall. Then we can see what fortune awaits.”
A few days later Mrs. Answorth looked exhausted in the morning at breakfast. “It's Dr. Answorth. He's caught a chill again and I was up all night nursing him.”
Charlotte inquired after his health.
“It's not bad, but he sinks so low when he is ill. I am promised to visit with the widow old Mrs. Chatsworth this morning.”
“I could do it Mrs. Answorth, if you'd like. I'd like to be helpful. You've done so much for me.”
“If it's not an imposition. I don't want to make you a drudge Miss Charlotte.”
“No it's not. I need the walk. Is there anything I should bring her?”
“Just your company. Her son looks after her wants, but she's housebound and gets so lonely. She used to be able to make it to church on Sundays, but recently even that's become too difficult for her, poor thing.”
Charlotte went back upstairs to her room and changed from her delicate muslins into the coarse woolen dress she wore when she went rambling about the countryside. As she descended, Mrs Answorth remarked, “You look just like a farmers daughter, Miss Charlotte. Shouldn't I send for the carriage and have you dress as befits your station?”
“My station? The daughter of a profligate old gambler who spent us into the poorhouse. No I've had enough of these airs. Besides, this way I can wander about for the exercise.”
“Surely Mrs. Chatsworth will appreciate my company, even if I dress like this.”
The Chatsworth farm was a few miles away from the vicarage, but the weather held clear and Charlotte made good time. She was nearly there when a young man in a curricle pulled up beside her and stopped. He was dressed in the latest London fashion with a tall hat, stiff collars so high that he could only turn his head with difficulty, a tie whose mathematical excellence required an hour in the moring to achieve and a traveling cloak with several layers and buttons as wide as his hands. His horses were showy 'fifteen miles an hour tits'. Charlotte looked at them with dismay, they may have been showy, but they were in poor condition and exhausted. If they did fifteen miles an hour, it was only for a few minutes at a time. The man's tiger evidently agreed and met her glance by looking away in shame.
“I say, countrywoman, is this the way to Pockington Hall? The directions they gave at the pub in the village were so confusing. This road is so small and muddy, I'm sure we must be lost.” The road was one of the better ones in the district.
“Why do you ask?”
“I'm thinking of buying it, but my old man told me to always inspect the goods before laying out my blunt. He was a canny one he was. So before I offer I want to see it.”
“Oh. Well, yes. You're on the right path. It's a mile past the next farm, on the right. Though you might want to return by the main road. Go out the front gate and you can't miss it.”
“Well, that's simple then. Thank you. Just to show that Frederick Oswith isn't a welsher, here's this.” He tossed her a shilling, then hied his horses and drove off.
Charlotte fumed, “What a mushroom, a bobbing block and a fool, I hope he doesn't buy my hall.” all the way to Mrs. Chatsworth's.
Mrs. Chatsworth was overwhelmed by her visitor, the daughter of the lord of the manor, and last of the DeVeres. Charlotte did her best to reassure the old woman, and in the end, after an hour or so of conversation she departed.
Charlotte climbed the down to see her beloved home, so soon to become the abode of someone else. Possibly even that detestable mushroom she'd met on the road. She shuddered at the thought, then turned and started towards the main road to make a loop out of her walk. The weather, which had started so clement began to darken with the threat of rain. The threat became real as a steady drizzle began to soak down.
The noise of a curricle approaching from behind interrupted her reverie. That young man was driving past her again. She forced herself to look away. It didn't help. He stopped and asked her, “Countrywoman, since you were so helpful and it is starting to rain, would you like a ride to the village? I have to find that blasted solicitor.”
The raindrops coming both larger and more frequently forced Charlotte to accept. With the help of the tiger, she mounted the curricle. The man introduced himself, “I'm Freddy Oswith. My father saved up the readies and wants me to become a country gentleman with them. I've been looking for a suitable hall for the last two years. Finally found it.”
“And you are?”
Charlotte looked away, both in shame and shyness. Freddy muttered “Suit yourself,” to himself and urged his pair onwards. After a few moments he shot a glance at his fair companion. She was uncommonly good looking, not at all what he expected a farm woman to look like, and yet, somehow she looked familiar. He thought for a moment then realized he'd seen her portrait at the hall.
“You're Miss DeVere, aren't you? The owner of the hall.”
Charlotte reluctantly admitted that was true.
“Then what are you doing out here, dressed like a farm woman? I'd like to know.”
“Visiting an elderly neighbor who needed the company.”
“Ah, the noblisse oblige. I guess I might have to learn to do that.”
“No, usually Mrs. Answorth visits her. She couldn't so I did.” Charlotte looked away. This conversation was over as far as she was concerned. Closer acquaintance hadn't improved her opinion of Mr. Oswith. Freddy in his usual style didn't understand subtle messages. He turned to her and asked, “Why are you selling? It's a spanking place, just what the doctor ordered.”
Unfortunately Freddy should have concentrated on his driving. He wasn't a good enough driver to let his concentration lapse, no matter how charming its object. His leads got caught in the near horse's feet, then wrapped around the right axle of his curricle. In a moment, the horse stumbled, the thill snapped and the curricle pitched sideways dumping him and his fair passenger into a tangled heap in the mud and slough on the side of the road. After a few intimacies that were well beyond the normal bounds of social etiquette, Charlotte and Freddy managed to disentangle themselves and stood by the side of the road.
His tiger, normally taciturn started to speak. “Governor, she's broke, and the horse probably lamed.”
Freddy, despite his supercilious manner, was not dim. “I can see that.”
“What are you going to do?”
“If Miss DeVere is fine, we will lead the horses to the village and see if there is some carriage available that isn't insufferable to ride.”Having adjusted her dress and dusted as much muck from as she could, Charlotte gave Freddy her fiercest gaze. She shouldn't have done that because it was also her prettiest gaze. Freddy was dazzled rather than threatened. “Mr. Oswith, we will never speak of this again.”
“Fine, suits me. Not my finest hour, you know. Can you walk to the village?”
Charlotte took a few trial steps then collapsed.
“I guess not. Looks like your ankle is banged up.”She nodded. The pain only added to her intense dislike of the parvenu. Freddy addressed his tiger, “Henry, it looks like you'll have to manage the horses and curricle yourself. I'll support Miss DeVere.”
“No you won't! I'll wait here.”“I'm sorry Miss DeVere, but it's raining hard already, and will only get worse. You're coming with me.”