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Authors: Roberta Gellis

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The English Heiress

BOOK: The English Heiress
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The English Heiress

Roberta Gellis

A Note to the Reader

It may surprise the readers familiar with my work to find that the events of this novel take place in 1791 rather than in 1191 or 1291. However, there is considerable similarity in the problems confronting people of the Western world in these times. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the techniques and concepts of government were changing from a loose feudalism to a centralized monarchy; in the eighteenth century, monarchy was giving way to varying forms of republicanism (which we call democracy).

Any examination of history shows that no political change is peaceful, and sadly, the higher and more complex the principles motivating the change, the bloodier and more violent are the events surrounding it. In medieval times, the highest principles (aside from those of religion) were personal honor and/or personal benefit. Political events were seen through these blinders, which narrowed the range of vision. By the eighteenth century, life was far more complex. The concept of honor was not totally abandoned or even laughable, as it is now, but it was altered and overshadowed by the theories of “the common good” or “the will of the people”. Events were no longer isolated in a castle, a town or a shire. What took place needed to be considered in the terms of a nation or even the whole continent of Europe.

Although I am less drawn to describing events that are well known to most readers of history and historical novels than those of earlier periods (and I fully intend to return again to the brilliant and magnificent tapestry that is medieval history), I could not resist this attempt to depict the tumultuous age in which our contemporary concepts and ideals of government were established. I have done my best to portray the actual historical events and personalities with accuracy. This has not been an easy task, not because of a lack of information but for exactly the contrary reason. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books and articles have been written about the events and people of this time, and most of them have very contradictory views and interpretations. I could not hope to exhaust the research materials available. The best I could do was to read widely and then present what I felt to be the most appropriate conclusions.

I have enjoyed writing this book. I hope you will enjoy reading it. As usual I have become so involved in the lives of my major characters (who are fictional, as are their families, friends and servants) that history is seen through their eyes, and their personal lives dominate the historical events. This is as it should be in a novel, in my opinion. I always appreciate readers’ comments on my work, but in this case I would be more than usually grateful to those who would take the trouble to email me. I would like to know what they think of this book and whether they would like me to continue setting novels in this period as well as in medieval times.

ROBERTA GELLIS

[email protected]                  ttp://www.robertagellis.com

June 1979 / February 2009

Chapter One

Sir Joseph St. Eyre’s hoarse roar penetrated the half-open doors of his study into the breakfast parlor, making his wife’s blue eyes open wide and his youngest son’s expressive brows rise. His grandson jumped. Philip was the only member of the third generation of a large and lively set of descendants, a credit to the old man’s virility, who was currently resident in the large manor house of Stonar Magna. He was not accustomed to displays of temper from his grandsire. Over seven decades of life, encompassing three wives, a numerous and abundantly energetic family, and many joys and sorrows, Sir Joseph had developed an equable disposition.

“Grand-mère,” the boy exclaimed, “ qu’est-ce que c’est que—”

“Speak English, Philip,” Roger St. Eyre interrupted.

There was no particular expression in his voice, but his stepmother, Lady Margaret, glanced briefly in his direction before she turned her attention to Philip, who was obligingly repeating in English his question about what had disturbed his grandfather.

“I have no idea,” Lady Margaret replied placidly, and then widened her eyes again as a renewed blast of expletives curdled the air. “But I really think your papa had better go and see what is wrong before your ears are further sullied with objectionable phrases.”

That made Philip giggle happily. Grand-mère was so different from Maman. She said many of the same things, but Grand-mère was only “doing the proper”, and her eyes laughed. She knew that Philip was no longer a baby and didn’t wish him to be one, nor to be like a perfect image of a boy in a silly novel. It was nicer here, nicer without Maman’s shrill, sharp complaining and bitter words. The giggle cut off suddenly and Philip bowed his head. Those were bad thoughts. He had had them many times before, but that was different. Now Maman was dead.

Lady Margaret did not notice Philip’s gesture of guilt, because Roger had thrown down his napkin and was sliding his chair back to rise. He smiled warmly at his stepmother, and she returned his smile thinking that Roger was looking much better. In the months since Solange had died, many of the lines of bitterness and worry had smoothed away from Roger’s dark face. His expression had always been saturnine because of the way his brows arched in a circumflex above his eyes and because of the length and firmness in his jaw. However, as a boy the look in Roger’s eyes—brightly, almost shockingly blue against his dark skin—had been gentle and kind when it did not sparkle with mischief.

Manhood had not changed that expression, until Roger had met Solange on his Grand Tour. He had courted her, loved her, sworn to be true. Unlike other young men, Roger had not forgotten her or his promises. With characteristic tenacity of purpose he had discussed the matter with his father, sensibly presenting facts and figures about his love’s family background and financial expectations rather than the color of her eyes or the shape of her face. Sir Joseph could see no objections, beyond the fact that Solange was French. He pointed out to his son that the lifestyles of the two nations were very different and that a French girl from a family tied to the French court might not be happy in England. To this Roger had replied that he had discussed the matter with Solange and she understood.

Although Sir Joseph did not believe this, he did not argue the point. He was quite sure Roger had explained everything with great care and clarity. What he did not believe was that a fifteen-year-old girl understood him. Besides, there was sufficient likelihood that Solange’s parents would not choose to ally their daughter to the son of a simple baronet or that they would not wish to send her so far from home. On the other hand, the girl was very young. If she loved Roger, she would adjust.

These sanguine hopes were not fulfilled. Solange’s parents were only too pleased to be rid of one of their superfluity of daughters, and to be rid or her so cheaply. Roger’s settlement would keep her quite well, Solange’s debt-ridden father said with satisfaction and dropped into the wastepaper basket the letter suggesting that he pay hisdaughter’s promised dowry. Roger was concerned about her father’s position, but he wanted Solange, and the marriage went off without any other hitch. Unfortunately neither youth nor love, if she felt any, enabled Solange to adjust to her adopted nation. She could not understand the relationships among the classes of society or the predilection of Englishmen for living in the country with only brief visits to London. Most of all she could not understand her husband’s refusal to live beyond his means.

Roger had a handsome if not lavish, private income from an estate settled upon him by his father. In addition, he was reading law and could expect to enlarge his private income substantially from his earnings once he was called to the bar. This latter activity revolted his wife almost as much as his bourgeois insistence on avoiding debt. Allnoblemen, Solange asserted passionately, lived above their means. It was crude, vulgar and ungenteel to count the cost of anything. It was even more vulgar for a nobleman to take the “long robe”.

In the beginning Roger exhorted, reasoned and pleaded, explaining again and again that English customs were different. He had restricted his own pleasure to pay for Solange’s. But it was useless. The more she had, the more extravagant she became and the more her husband did for her, the greater her contempt for him grew. Philip’s birth, three years after their marriage, brought Roger and Solange to a final parting of the ways. She hated the disfigurement of pregnancy. She hated the pain and indignity of childbirth. She hated the squalling, red-faced creature that was produced. When she recovered from her lying-in, Solange refused all sexual congress with her husband. She did not make excuses. She told Roger outright that she had done her duty as a wife and provided him with an heir. Now she was through with an act she had always found repulsive.

This was more a relief than a punishment to Roger, who had struggled fruitlessly for years to overcome his wife’s frigidity. He had used every form of foreplay a considerate nature and an active imagination could devise, only to be told he was disgusting. He had confined himself to the simplest form of intercourse, prolonging the act until it was agony for him, hoping to bring her to climax—only to be told he was deliberately torturing his wife. The inescapable conclusion was that Solange found him so repulsive that she could not respond no matter what technique he tried.

The effect of such a conclusion on a man of passionate temperament was not happy, but it was mitigated by the fact that Solange’s behavior, out of bed as well as in it, had long since killed Roger’s love and even destroyed any affection he had had for her. However, his nightmare was not over. Roger could not simply separate himself from his wife as so many husbands did. He could not set her up in a house, furnish her with a liberal allowance, and let her live her own life. He could not even allow her to return to Paris and live there. Roger knew that Solange’s living costs would outstrip any allowance, no matter how generous, that she would borrow on his credit and he would be ruined. To threaten that he would not pay her debts would be ridiculous. Solange knew he would never permit her to be thrown into debtor’s prison—and Roger knew she knew. They had to live together so that Roger could control her.

Grimly, he set the bounds and kept Solange within them. It was not pleasant. It was a long nightmare that wakened Roger in the night, cold and sweating. He was forced to create a major scandal by removing Solange physically from the gambling tables of a public room, returning jewelry purchased without his permission and going personally to inform the major modistes that he would not pay his wife’s bills.

In revenge, Solange made public scenes that left her husband sick and shaking, and when she found this was turning more people against her than arousing their sympathy, she tried to make Philip hate and despise his father. This effort failed because Solange was unable to provide for the child’s emotional needs. In one thing alone she succeeded. Philip was more French than English in speech and manner. All Philip’s servants were French, from his wet nurse to his current valet. French was his first language, and he spoke English, although fluently, with the slight accent and the intonation of the foreign-born.

As he left the table, Roger noticed his son’s bent head and paused to squeeze his shoulder consolingly. He certainly did not want Philip to feel embarrassed about an occasional exclamation, particularly when he knew how good a relationship existed between the boy and Lady Margaret. Philip looked up and smiled gratefully, thinking that his father had guessed the guilt he felt for being relieved that his mother was dead. His father really understood. Philip could not help knowing that Roger was more relieved than he, and also torn by guilt. The boy stifled an impulse to run after Roger and hug and kiss him. Englishmen did not do such things. He sighed as Roger entered the study and closed the door.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” Roger said to his father with an amused quirk to his lips. “I’m sorry to interrupt you and to shut you in without a ‘by your leave’ or ‘if you please’, but Lady Margaret felt your language wasn’t fit for tender ears…” His voice drifted off as Sir Joseph looked up. There was no answering laughter in his father’s eyes. “Good God, sir,” Roger exclaimed, “something is really wrong. I had thought it was Vinnie again. Is there something I can do to help?”

“I don’t…by God, yes! You are just the man I need, Roger. Do you keep up your French connections?”

“My French—there was never much ‘connection’ between Solange’s family and myself. They felt—”

“No, no, my boy,” Sir Joseph interrupted hastily. “I didn’t mean that. Sorry to bring it to mind. You used to do a lot of business with some legal firms in France, getting our wretched young devils on the Continent out of trouble.”

“Oh. Yes and no, Father. Technically, we’restill associated, but I haven’t had much to do with them recently. Of course, most English travelers have been avoiding France, and Paris in particular, for the last couple of years. Why?”

Sir Joseph sighed. “Sit down. This is likely to be a long story. You remember Stour, don’t you?”

“Of course he died about three or four years ago.”

“Yes.” Sir Joseph nodded sadly. “If I live much longer, I shan’t have a friend left me. William and I were good friends. Then young William—not that he was so young, really, about the same age as your brother Arthur—took a chill and died of an inflammation of the lungs.”

Roger frowned. “I hadn’t heard that. I’m sorry. He used to take me out with a gun when you visited with Stour. That would make Joseph the earl. Well, he would have been anyhow since William had never married and said plainly he had no taste for it. But I don’t understand how I didn’t know of his death.”

“It was after Solange had taken ill. With the doctors in the house and she sinking so swiftly in such pain, you had enough to bear without adding more bad news. The devil is in it, though, that Joseph won’t be earl. Joseph is dead.” Sir Joseph touched the letter lying on his desk to explain where his information came from.

Good God!” Roger exclaimed. “No wonder you’re upset. How did it come about? That would pass the title to little William. Poor boy! But Lady Alice will be a tower of strength. She—”

“They are all dead,” Sir Joseph growled, his voice harsh with his effort to keep it from shaking.

“What!” Roger’s bellow was nearly the equivalent of his father’s first roar of surprise and distress. “Sir, what can you mean?” he asked, lowering his voice. Roger would have been inclined to think his father was joking—only this wasn’t the sort of thing Sir Joseph or anyone else with normal sensibilities joked about Still, he couldn’t help protesting, “This isn’t a novel by Horry Walpole or Mrs. Radcliffe.”

“You might think it was,” Sir Joseph replied, but there was so much sadness in his eyes that Roger had no inclination to smile. “Joseph was on the Irish estates. You know Stour was a good landlord and did not like always to be taking the word of the bailiff about conditions there. Besides, Joseph and Alice had no taste for the high ton. When William died—it was very quick—Compton wrote at once to Joseph, and he came immediately. Then, seeing everything was in excellent order, he went back to help Alice with packing and moving. She was breeding again, and he didn’t like to leave the whole weight of shifting the household upon her.”

Breeding or not, Roger thought, Alice de Conyers was perfectly capable of moving either a single handkerchief or a full household with the least fuss and inconvenience. Yet he understood quite well why her husband would gladly put himself out to spare her any effort. She was not a handsome woman, but had a sweetness of disposition for which Roger would have eagerly traded all of Solange’s beauty. However, he did not interrupt his father’s tale with his private reflections.

“They took ship on June twenty-second on the packet Pride of St. George.”

‘The Pride!” Roger gasped. That disaster that had been widely reported in the London papers The Pride of St. George had been hit by a sudden squall and had gone down, nearly in sight of land. “But I didn’t see their names in the list of those lost.”

“No, because some passengers were saved and several of them remembered Joseph. He had got his family and a number of other women and children into one of the small boats and lowered it safely. Then apparently he was washed overboard, but someone else saw him clinging to the side of the boat Alice was in. The winds were terrific and all those who managed to grab something that would keep them afloat were blown miles apart. If they had come ashore in one of the wilder areas of Wales, it might well have taken weeks to get word to Compton. He kept hoping…”

BOOK: The English Heiress
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