Authors: Mary Williams
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #Historical Fiction, #Historical Romance
© Mary Williams 2014
Mary Williams has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 2001, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in 1994 by Robert Hale Limited
This edition published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd
The characters and events portrayed in
are fictitious except for a single reference to Lady Jane Grey, the ‘nine days’ queen. However, the area depicted as ‘Burnwood Forest’ is meant to capture the atmosphere of Charnwood Forest, which is to be found in the very centre of England. I have used local landmarks, hamlets, and adjoining towns under different names for the sake of the story-line. Anyone knowing the district will no doubt find many recognizable, despite certain juggling with geography. Beacon Hill exists, and Bradgate.
Should any reader be tempted to explore the secret valleys, woodlands, and narrow lanes winding beneath rocky tumps of hills, I hope something of the magic I always found there is sensed and reborn.
I hear new roads have been built in the vicinity and buildings have sprung up eroding several former beauty
spots, but much of the Forest – call it ‘Burnwood’ or the real Charnwood – still exists and is protected by law for the benefit of wild life, and human beings who still in this industrial age cherish Nature’s gifts – almost mystical – that are our heritage.
The moment she entered the Tree Studio it seemed to Kate that Cassandra
’s personality emanated and gathered force as a single personality.
Gentle elegance blended subtly – almost slyly –
with the haphazard untidiness of a shawl lying crumpled over the narrow divan in one corner, a pair of sandals on the floor, books in a disordered pile on the wicker table and a blue cape hanging on a peg. Paints and an unfinished watercolour sketch of a tree with imaginary faces half-suggested through the branches had been pushed on a low shelf against the wall. Make-up had rolled from a half-open handbag, including a lipstick now lying on the colourful Oriental rug. There was an expensive-looking hanging mirror facing the open door that, in the changing late afternoon, gave a strange impression of reflected movement emphasized by the shapes of trees swaying fitfully through the glass. The air was heady, soft and sultry, holding the scent of wood, and damp leaves blending nostalgically with something else – a lingering faint perfume – Cassandra’s.
And as she stood motionless staring through the quivering pattern of light and shade, Kate started remembering.
In a kaleidoscope of events the past swam through her mind. She shivered, and was unaware of the crackling of a man’s feet on the twigs and encrusted earth behind her, until his voice suddenly penetrated her senses.
She turned and saw
Rick’s face – lean, dark-eyed staring down on her.
I thought I might find you here,’ he said. ‘But there’s no point in brooding. The past’s over. Done with.’
Such a waste.’
Nothing’s a waste,’ he told her, with a touch of grimness. ‘I guess we’ve learned a few things, you and I.’
We oughtn’t have had to.’
Come along. We’re going home. You’ve a family. Remember?’
f course she remembered. She remembered everything the good and the bad, the happy and the sad – all the intricate events leading to this moment when Cassie, for a few brief seconds, seemed to be very near. As they walked back to the carriage waiting down the lane, her thoughts automatically switched back to the point long ago when she’d first got involved with Rick Ferris in 1905.
It was the occasion of the dance at Charnbrook Hall where she
’d worn the crimson dress for the first time.
Yes, that exotic attire had started it all and set
tled the courses of four lives – hers and Rick’s, Cassandra’s and Jon’s. And it had been at
will. She alone had been responsible.
Or had she?
Walter Barrington and his wife Emily were gratified when their only child, a daughter, Kate, was invited to the birthday dance of a school friend, Isabella Wentworth. It proved that the considerable expense of her education at the most select boarding-schoo
l in the country had been worthwhile.
The Wentworths after all were of that elite breed, the English aristocracy; the son of the house, the Honourable Jonathan, would become, on the death of his bachelor uncle, Lord Wynterley. In the meantime, any connection of the Barringtons with Isabella
’s family was a step towards bridging the polite but mostly impregnable class-barrier existing in those early years of the century between Trade and the Gentry.
Walter did not consider himself a snob, nor even a
‘climber’. He was stolid middle class, and proud of it, having inherited a considerable fortune from his father, in the stocking trade, furthered by his own needle-sharp mind for finance and an enviable capacity for cunning investments and understanding of stocks and shares.
It was natural, therefore, that he should wish the very best for his only child.
His estate and country mansion were situated seven miles from the industrial city of Lynchester on the outskirts of the Burnwood Forest, with only six miles dividing the house and lands from those of the Wentworths which stretched towards Larchborough on the opposite side of the picturesque woodland area.
So, should any romantic friendship arise between Isabella
’s brother and Kate, social contact would be easily accessible.
Walter had a shrewd idea that Kate
’s interest was wandering in the right direction. The two young people had already met at charity functions organized by Lynchester’s Lady Mayoress, and since that first occasion he’d noticed a tell-tale gleam in his daughter’s lovely eyes whenever the Wentworth name was mentioned. Although she’d professed indifference at any teasing quip concerning the Hon. Jon, Walter knew he’d hit the mark. Kate was proud. But if she fancied the young lord-to-be, he’d do his damnedest to see she got what she wanted. He had the cash, and the Wentworths, from all accounts, were in need of it. Blue blood didn’t pay taxes and bills, which was where he could be of assistance.
Kate was a good-looking girl, and a character, full of bounce and the joy of life; in her parents
’ eyes a credit to the name of Barrington, capable of bringing new vitality to any fading top-notch family she married into.
A spot of fresh healthy blood was necessary from time to time for the continuance of good stock in any noble tree, Walter told himself, and the Wentworths were no exception. It was just a matter of encouraging every chance there was of seeing they realized it.
No open bribery of course; his own integrity and pride in his daughter wouldn’t resort to that. But there were ways – there were ways. A lessening of financial strain for the future could be a heart-warming and helpful stepping-stone in establishing friendly relationships – even if they were needed, which shouldn’t be necessary where a lovely girl like Kate was concerned.
Emily, who well knew the trend of her husband
’s thoughts, was more cautious.
Don’t try and force things, Walter,’ she said. ‘Kate will know her own mind when the right time comes along. She’s got a brain and heart of her own.’
Actually Kate already knew.
She wanted Jon.
On their first brief meeting at the civic garden party she had sensed a quick rapport between them with a leap of excitement that on her part was rather more. Jon had such charm, he was so handsome: tall, with that certain fair-haired, blue-eyed air of gallantry and dedicated attention that imbued her fleetingly with a sensation of romance.
It was true they had found very little to say to each other, but time and opportunity had been so limited. He’d been in great demand.
But his expression had been full of admiration and, before being dragged away by some pushy society female, he’d said, smiling, ‘It’s been ripping meeting you, Miss Barrington, Izzy must bring you to Charnbrook one day. I’ll look forward to that.’
’d been aware of his glance travelling under lowered lids over the gauzy frill of tulle at her neck to her tiny waist and voluminous drapes below. The shade was of soft blue. Not her shade really, with her rich colouring – cream, glowing skin, full red lips and dark amber-gold eyes shining brilliantly under her flowered but tasteful hat; it had been her mother’s choice. She felt a swift flush stain her cheeks, and pushed a rebellious strand of copper-bright hair from a cheek.
Thank you,’ she’d said, adding with a quick flurry of words, ‘yes, I’d like to – very much.’
See you remember.’
’d moved away with one arm dragged by the odious blonde.
Had he really meant it? she
’d wondered afterwards, or was it mostly politeness on his part?
’d known Isabella better she’d have pumped her and found out, but the two girls had only really become friendly during a brief period at finishing-school. Anyway, the ice was broken now. Somehow, Kate decided, she’d find or make an excuse for renewing the contact.
As things turned out the necessity hadn
The dance had solved matters, and this time she
’d chosen her own gown. She was old enough, good heavens. Eighteen. Nearly nineteen. Mama would have to listen.
Mama had been forced to.
Hence the crimson dress.
It was of seductive shimmering satin, temptingly
on the shoulders above the tightly fitting bodice. Slightly below the waist folds were drawn to the back then left to flow freely in a billowing circle to the points of silver slippers. Staring at her image through the long cheval mirror in her bedroom Kate felt a leap of excitement. She looked not only beautiful, but more mature suddenly, with an exotic quality that would surely titillate Jon Wentworth’s senses. In a wave of self-revelation she recognized she had never in her life wanted anything or anyone so much. Would he respond? Oh, he must, he must, she thought, humming a bar or two of the ‘Blue Danube’ softly under her breath. Her body swayed rhythmically from side to side, both hands lifting the full skirt slightly above her ankles. Her head was tilted upwards on her slender neck, flower-like, with her massed hair rich and glowing in the transient light from the window.
A creak of the door startled her. She turned, as Emily entered the room.
‘Is this a rehearsal?’ she queried in faintly acid tones. She loved Kate and was proud of her. But there had been moments recently when she’d considered her daughter was becoming too conscious of her own charm and good looks.
Yes,’ Kate answered shortly. ‘It’s only a week to the dance now, and I wanted to be sure everything was all right.’
Didn’t we arrange for the neckline to be slightly raised at the last fitting? Mrs Adams quite agreed with me it would be better, if you remember.’
But she’s a bit of a fuss-pot, Mama. And
a bit old-fashioned, you know. In society these days colour and style are important. So I called on her the other day when I was in Lynchester and told her to leave it as it was.’
You did that? Without telling me?’
‘Mama! I’m eighteen years old. Not a schoolgirl any more. The Wentworths will expect any friend of Isabella’s to be up-to-date. So please –
don’t criticize. It’s a
dress, and I’ll love wearing it. Now do smile. Say you like it. Honestly! – I do know what’s fashionable and what’s not. You can’t say it doesn’t suit me. Or shall we ask Papa’s opinion?’
You look smart, I suppose,’ Emily agreed grudgingly, knowing that as Walter would undoubtedly side with his daughter, any more protests would be useless. ‘But I’d have preferred something more modest myself. Still, it’s your dance – your friend’s I should say. I only hope you’re right about the Wentworths’ taste, and that they won’t think you look the slightest bit – cheap.’
Kate laughed; a merry sound.
‘Dear Mama. You are funny. Cheap? When I’m going to wear your diamond pendant? You did
Shaking her head, Emily threw up her hands.
‘You’re impossible, Kate.’
Of course. I said you could borrow it, and I keep my word. But I think you should give a thought to Cassie. All your finery’s going to put her in the shade more than ever. I shall have to look through my jewel case and find something special for her. In my opinion it’s a pity Isabella included her in the invitation. She’ll probably feel quite out of things.’
Kate thought so too.
Just at that point the presence of Cassandra Blacksley at Beechlands looked something of a hindrance and a boring obligation to shoulder. She was the adopted daughter of a cousin of Walter’s, the widow of a minister living in Yorkshire. The child had been taken in by the couple when she was six years old, but two years later Wilf Blacksley had died leaving his wife and the little girl very little to live on. Walter had done his best from time to time to be of financial help; but his relative, possessing more than a fair share of the Barrington stubborn pride, had been fiercely independent and started a small dressmaking business in Bradford, which she ran with sufficient efficiency to support the two of them. One suggestion of Walter’s she agreed to was that Cassandra, a rather frail girl, should spend six weeks of every summer at Beechlands to gain benefit from the country air and change of scene. When they were young children, before Kate went away to school, the two had been companionable. Kate had quite enjoyed playing the role of youthful fairy-godmother to poor Cassie who had to live in such bleak circumstances. But in their late teens the difference of backgrounds and interests had widened. Cassandra had seemed to withdraw more into herself and become even less colourful in looks and character. She was a slight pale girl with little to say for herself, and seldom laughed or saw a joke. What good points she had physically faded and went unnoticed in Kate’s exuberant company; her large black-lashed luminous grey eyes failed to register. Her abundance of fine straight hair worn severely in a knot at the back of her small head appeared merely nondescript mouse, although in sunlight it could brighten transiently to tawny gold. Kate considered her plain; but her features were small and finely chiselled; there was an elusive quality about her generally ignored – too secretive for most people to bother about or even be aware of.
Her true background was not referred to by the Barringtons; it was doubtful even that Walter
’s cousin knew her exact heredity. She had been adopted from an orphanage when the minister and his wife learned they could never have children of their own. Through the years her identity had been completely accepted as Cassandra Blacksley. Cassandra, because she had been so labelled at the institution where she’d lived since babyhood. None of the family delved any more into those far past years. Even Kate never wondered about her beginnings. She was just her rather remote and unfortunate second cousin whose company had to be endured at intervals during the summer months. With her natural warm-heartedness Kate had tried intermittently to make Cassie’s visits enjoyable. But the effort had become increasingly boring. Whereas Kate enjoyed socializing, using the carriage or new motorcar to be driven into Lynchester for a shopping spree, and physical exercise like walking the dog or riding her mare, Beth, over the countryside bordering the Forest, Cassandra preferred ‘mooning about’ – Kate’s expression – with a drawing pad and box of water colours to make sketches of trees and wild flowers. Kate thought the results rather colourless, like Cassie herself, although Emily said the paintings showed talent for detail, and had imagination.
If she’d had training and gone to art school,’ she said to Walter one day, ‘she might have turned out to be a really good artist.’
Well, my dear, I did offer to foot the bill,’ Walter pointed out, ‘but you know how pigheaded that cousin of mine is. And the girl will be a good help in that little business of hers. It’s not for us to interfere.’
No, I suppose not.’
So matters were left as they were, and no one had grudged Cassandra
’s summer months at Beechlands until the year of Isabella’s dance, when Kate was to wear the red dress.
Everything could have been so wonderful, she thought, if she hadn
’t to be burdened with Cass. But in a careless moment she’d mentioned her presence to Isabella, and Isabella had insisted she’d bring her along with her.
,’ she’d said. ‘Your cousin? Of course she must come. It will be my last chance of meeting her probably. I’m going to India next month to be married. It would be frightfully hurtful to leave her out. Yes. It’s my dance. And I’m
her, here and now, unless you want me to write. Do you?’