It had been a month since news was received that the ships were lost, and there were times when Isabelle felt that very little had changed within the family. Her father was accepting of the budgetary changes and immediately took it all in stride, giving his youngest daughter free rein to do as she saw fit in order to put things right. The servants refused to be let go or to find temporary work, for many of them had been with them for years and years – some had even come with the late mistress upon her marriage to the master – and they preferred to stay, even accepting a cut in their wages in the hopes of better times to come. Besides, those that had watched Miss Isabelle grow up remained in order to watch after her, since it was quite obvious her father was blissfully ignorant when it came to his other children and their treatment of her.
“If anything happened to Sir Benjamin, that lot would be on her faster than flies on…” quipped the head butler to Mrs. Hathaway when the secondary servants were not around to overhear his language.
“Them?” She glanced over her shoulders to make certain they were alone. “I worry what might happen if Lady Nicole sinks her claws into him. I have heard…things about her as well, that she is not as innocent as she pretends.”
“Still…the old master seems quite fond of her…and he is rather lonely considering her ladyship has been gone these seven years.”
“Men!” the housekeeper mumbled. “Throw a few pretty phrases their way and they are more gullible than some debutante. I declare…she will make herself the new mistress of this house yet.”
That was not exactly certain as the family’s fortunes seemed to decrease more and more.
Isabelle had managed to pay their most binding debts so that only the butcher and the more crucial providers were their only creditors, but it seemed that daily, an unexpected expense would appear: a tailor, a perfumer or a millinery…and the dates of the purchases were quite recent. Why she had believed her siblings would take this seriously she had no idea?
Julia – using some of her burgeoning funds bequeathed her by her husbands – had squandered enough in one day at Brighton as a treat for herself, her sister and best friend to have helped their parent several times over, but Belle doubted he would have accepted it even if Julia had insisted. It was simply the principle of the matter for the family was beginning to struggle with each passing day, and only she, the servants and her father seemed to comprehend how precarious their position was.
Nicole remained. No need bailing just yet until circumstances completely called for it. After all, if she departed now when things were not quite rocky, what would Sir Benjamin think of her when it came to a crisis. She had to appear to be firm and understanding, the type of woman who would stand at his side through anything, and she had her own money to take care of her needs…as well as pass a little bit now and then to assist the man she was courting. She knew what an astute businessman he was and that he could possibly rebound from this disaster, therefore she would stay until she could stay no longer….
It was a little more than four weeks now when Julia and Gwyneth – dressed in their finest – descended the main staircase with the intention of visiting their very good friend and neighbor Lady Lambshanks-Howell, whom they gushed had invited them to tea. Benjamin was in the billiard room with the few friends that had yet to desert him now that he was down on his luck, and although he would never confess it, they mostly stayed because they knew his often astute gambling skills had deserted him as much as his father’s business circumstances.
With the afternoon sun beaming down upon her, Isabelle sat in the window seat of the second-floor sewing room, attempting to find some quiet while she carefully mended a torn stitch in one of her brother’s fine silk shirts. A smile tugged at her lips when she saw her sisters appear in the courtyard as they tapped their feet in annoyance that the sedan chairs that would bear them to the Lambshanks-Howell estate were not in place, awaiting their arrival.
“Lazy…” she heard Gwyneth’s voice trill through the open bedroom window, before calling out – as much as her ladylike demeanor would permit, “Claude! Amos! Where the…?”
“They should have been here, you know,” Julia grumbled. “We are going to be late. Claude! Amos! Her ladyship will never forgive us if we’re late. Fashionably late is one thing, but this….Amos! Claude!”
“What is the matter sweet songbirds of England?” That came from their brother, who had suddenly strolled outside, accompanied by his drinking companions, all of whom were exaggerating their bows.
“Peter!! Amos!! We are…” Julia said through gritted teeth, “attempting to depart for our visit to…Oh! There you are you lazy….Where have you been?!”
“Apologies, your ladyship,” the oldest one named Amos said as he wiped his eyes, an indication that he and the other boys had likely been asleep or better occupied. “We were…detained you see and…”
Gwyneth huffed. “Never mind that – we are late for the Lambshanks-Howells. She will never, never forgive us.”
“Will you look at the disorder and…Feathers? Hay? Where in the world have you been storing these?!”
“We can try to clean ‘em up, Miss, if ye giv’ us a moment or two.” Claude pretended to be contrite, but as he only liked the younger mistress and the old master, he was simply sorry the chair was not reeking of dung so that these two hens could make an appropriate entrance.
“Did you not hear me? We do not have the time!” Julia shouted as she began to climb inside one. “Just wait until our father is back in his proper place. You will not dare be so slack in your duties or we will throw each and every one of you out on the street. The gall…”
“You have not heard the last of this,” Gwyneth also complained as the servants jostled her into place, attempting to hide their smiles when she bumped her head against the interior.
“Farewell grand ladies of the kingdom!” Benjamin derisively called after them as the women were finally situated and their little procession began.
“I thought you liked them,” came another voice.
“Oh but I do, I do, Pitt. I love my sisters as much as I love a good wine and a winning hand at cards…as long as they send a bit of their purses in my direction.” He lowered his voice. “I love them as much as I love a nice plump whore with…” and he placed his hands before his chest as though indicating she should be large in the bosom causing them all to vulgarly guffaw.
“Oh I say…speaking of nice and plump…” Beady eyes turned upwards to the sewing room windows and a thick tongue enthusiastically licked a pair of moist lips. “That little sister of yours…”
“Who?” Benjamin. “Oh! You mean…” He shook his head, incredulous. “Isabelle? Are you speaking of our Belle?”
“Indeed I am,” his friend nearly slobbered in his eagerness, but attempted to control himself in case young Benjamin took offense, despite the manner in which he normally spoke of the girl. “Luscious little lamb she is, Ben, in case you have never noticed. Well…I suppose you would not being her…”
“Why you sly…” Benjamin patted the blubbery back, hidden underneath the layers and layers of thick flesh. “So…you have an eye for her, eh?”
“I have always found Isabelle a lovely little thing, my friend. I did watch her blossom into womanhood and…well…I would not have assumed, you see, to wonder…well…if she might pay me…”
“Isabelle does not have a say in the matter when all is said and done,” Benjamin rumbled, his eyes glinting at the thought of this noble – and affluent – acquaintance from childhood being a part of their family. This could be the answer to their financial woes if matters were played just right. “She will do as her father sees fit…or a beloved brother who does not desire to watch her become a spinster – old and wasted…unloved and undesired by any man.”
“I say Ben…I thought your Gwyneth older than…” the other friend began, only to be interrupted by a raised hand.
“Gwyneth may be slightly older, Pitt…and we should not be discussing the age of any lady we have known or loved – including the Lady Jennifer or the Lady Minnie – but Gwyneth is a great beauty who will have little trouble finding a husband once her mind is made up. But Isabelle….What man would even look twice in her…”
“I would,” his fat friend professed, observing that Isabelle – on realizing she was being watched – sat back from the window. He could have sworn he could see her blush through the glass….”I have, indeed I have, Ben old man. She could be the arrow that has pierced my heart…”
Pitt snickered, then tried to look away as if he had not heard the last part, but Ben’s eyes were gleaming in anticipation. “Then…perhaps it is time we…talked….A brother must be concerned for the welfare of his…”
Their conversation was interrupted when they heard a horse’s hooves racing through the main gates, the rider seemingly so excited, he nearly skidded across the lawn instead of following the paving.
“What the devil?!” the potential brother-in-law proclaimed.
“It’s…” Ben recognized the traveler immediately, and with more enthusiasm than he had managed in quite a long time, he began to shout: “Father! Father! Come quickly!”
“I cannot believe she would do such a thing to us,” Gwyneth declared as she and her sister strolled into the foyer of their home while the footman stood to one side after opening the entrance doors for them. “The nerve…to invite us and then…”
“And then to deny us access. To snub us. To pretend she was not at home when we know she was at home. Oh…do not fret Gwyneth….When we have returned to how it should be, she will come to us and beg our forgiveness….What in the world?” The sound of laughter filled the house – laughter she had not heard in weeks. “Edward…what is…?”
“Sir Benjamin has received word from Portsmouth – most excellent news, my lady. The family is celebrating.”
“His ships,” Julia whispered and with Gwyneth fast on her heels, the two hurried towards the dining room.
“And so…” the merchant was explaining yet again, the letter in his hands as he referred to it but quite honestly now knew it by heart, “despite the loss of two of the ships – God rest their souls – the arrival of the remainder of the fleet is indeed the greatest of news, my dearest children. My creditors, of course, will desire to be paid immediately but afterwards…well…we shall once more find that we may hold our heads with the pride deserving of our family.”
“Ooooo…Father,” Gwyneth gushed. “I knew all would be well.”
“As did I,” Lady Nicole said, her smile making the old man’s heart soar. “Sir Benjamin…the gods are most definitely on your side. As I told your father, Julia – Gwyneth…he now knows who his true friends are.”
“And I count you amongst them,” the elder Benjamin replied, smiling back.
“Oh Sir Benjamin….I am honored.”
“I hope that you feel the same fellowship towards me as well,” a male voice chimed in.
“Indeed I do, Sir Winterbottom. I hold in very great honor all of those that stood at my family’s side during this crisis, and I imagine, this is something from which we will all benefit in the end.”
He did not notice when his son and Sir Maxwell Winterbottom exchanged knowing glances, their eyes – slightly vitreous from the congratulatory glasses of wine they had already consumed – shifting quickly to where Isabelle stood just behind her father. She was happily wrapping her arms about him and giving him a kiss on the cheek, delighted to see that he was once more beaming and in true form.
“Therefore my dears…I shall be departing at dawn for Portsmouth in order to assess our situation, but I feel – based on the news the messenger carried – all will be well again….Ah…our food at last!” he proclaimed as the servants entered the chamber, the scents of fresh bread, roast beef, roasted pork, and goose accompanying them. A few carried large dishes with the vegetables and puddings, and the butler was carefully directing the serving of a wine just brought up from the cellars. “Drink up, drink up. And eat! This is a celebration after all. Ah…wonderful – the ‘88. Splendid. I cannot think of a better time to open a few bottles….”
After an evening in the company of his family, Sir Benjamin was uncertain if he would be in condition to depart, but just a few moments before dawn, he was in the vestibule, finding himself escorted by his children and Lady Nicole to the waiting horse.
“And I suppose,” he was saying as Gwyneth linked one arm within her own, and Julia walked near to his right, leaving Benjamin to hover nearby while Isabelle and then Nicole followed close behind, “I should ask if there is anything that I might bring to you upon my return. Of course I am not certain I can find everything in Portsmouth – likely I may have to spend a day or two in London…” At this, Julia clapped her hands together and Gwyneth beamed.
“Oh to be traveling to London, Father,” the second daughter exclaimed. “It has been so long. Do you think…Oh! Do you think we might have the opportunity to spend the autumn there instead of here in the country?”
“We’ll see, my dear. So…is that what you wish? To be in the capital. I suppose I should see about opening the townhouse for our visit.”
“Oh do, Father, do!” Julia trumpeted.
“That will be one of the main matters I will concern myself with once my business is done – to arrange for a visit to London then. Now…is there anything more? Julia?”
“I should like…let me think, let me think….I should like some fine fabrics in order to have the modistes design the most fashionable wardrobe, especially if we are to be in London again this year. I cannot be seen in the same things I had during the Season. You will know the appropriate ones to purchase, Father – the ones that will flatter me. And jewelry – I should have something new as far as my accessories are concerned….”
“Oh I should love the same,” Gwyneth exclaimed, shaking her father’s arm as if to gain his attention. “You will know what is befitting…what will suit my coloring,” and she lightly touched at her blonde tresses, which were such a contrast to her sister’s dark red hair. “I have always been quite fond of pinks, you know. I feel they flatter me best.”
“And…well…perhaps I am expecting too much, Father,” Julia shyly began.
“What is that my dear?”
“I have always longed to have something…quite precious….Something you might place in your office to admire and think of how much you love me…and…I was thinking perhaps…a figurine – a gold figurine…of…myself.”
Gwyneth nearly pouted upon hearing that. “I was going to say the same, Father. I have portraits of course, but a figurine would be perfect, and…I would love for you to find a place for it in your office as well, so that others might admire what a pair of daughters you have.”
“We shall see….Benjamin? What shall I bring you?”
His son grinned, hoping that he did not appear too greedy. “Well, I have no objection to the idea of new cloths. It will be a challenge for my tailor, especially if we are to be in London this year. And…a purse…”
“Containing gold coin?”
The younger man smiled. “I…Well sir…you do know of my predilection for the tables.” And other things he would not dare say before his sisters or his parent.
“We shall see then, my boy…but Ben…you must promise that should we spend time in London as we all desire, you will cease the sowing of your wild oats and make a serious attempt to settle into a respectful position as befits you. I cannot live forever.”
“Nonsense, sir. You shall live forever I am certain,” Benjamin tried to placate him. “But I realize the error of my ways and will do all I can to please you.”
“I appreciate that, Benjamin, thank you. Now…Lady Nicole…” His guest dipped a most elegant curtsy. “For being a friend, shall I bring you…?”
“Nothing Sir Benjamin – nothing but your return for this house will miss your presence…as will your children.”
“You are too kind.”
By now they were all outside on the stoop and it was now that the merchant turned to look at his youngest child, who stood silently and timidly back from the others. He had been neglecting her he considered, spoiling her brother and sisters when she asked for so little. Considering this as he approached her, he placed a hand underneath her chin and gently smiled. “You have been silent, Isabelle. What shall I bring to you? Fabrics for a London wardrobe? Jewels?” He ignored the snickers he heard from her sisters or that one of them was whispering ‘But nothing looks right on her.’ “Come now Belle….There must be something you would desire I bring you. Speak, speak!”
Raising her head, she thought a moment. “If you please…I would like a rose.”
“A white rose, Father.”
“A white…rose?” Behind him the tittering grew louder. “But I do not…You do not long for beautiful fabrics or jewels? After all…you will be seeing London society as will your sisters and…”
“I would like a white rose,” she nervously repeated, already feeling as though she had said something wrong. “The roses in the garden…well…the white ones at least did not do as well as they have in past years and…” She shrugged. “I’ve missed them this summer. I really don’t need anything else….”
“I shall bring you something more of course.”
“Please….Only the rose, Father,” she softly pleaded. She had no desire to attempt to outshine her sisters, and feeling their eyes penetrating her every move made her wish she had not asked for even the simple gift. She also caught sight of the person who no doubt desired to become her new mother, and saw that even she was of the same mind as Julia and Gwyneth. There were times when she knew they were right. Why would any man look at her or court her when she was surrounded by such beautiful women – women who made her accept exactly how plain her features were. /And not only my looks, but me….//
“Only the rose – a white rose,” Sir Benjamin answered while his remaining children and Lady Nicole could not help but laugh harder now. “Very well then, Isabelle. I shall bring you what your heart desires. Now…give me a kiss and bid me Godspeed.”
They each in turn wished him a safe journey, and before long, he had mounted the chestnut colored stallion and was riding away, just as several more shafts of light cut through the clouds. The five continued to wave until he was out of sight, and then they relaxed.
“A rose,” Benjamin nearly spat, glaring at his youngest sibling. “What sort of request is that?”
“Well, what do you expect from an imbecile?” Julia commented, looking down her nose. “The man is being at his most generous and all you can think of is a stupid rose.”
“We have roses in the garden, Isabelle! Haven’t you looked?”
“Oh well…it is nothing more than she deserves, dearest,” Julia told Gwyneth. “Could you imagine that in London society?” They both giggled, as did their good friend, although her attention appeared to be elsewhere as she scanned the grounds, smiling as they were illuminated beneath the gathering light.
“I am quite certain that one day,” Nicole confided, “she will make a most proficient governess or nursemaid or companion. After all, her father will have no more need of her assistance once he has…” She stopped, realizing she had said too much.
Her friends squealed and young Ben rolled his eyes. “Has Father asked you then?” they nearly said together.
“Not yet, not yet, but…I have no doubt that he will upon his return, once matters are more…settled.”
There was another squeal, followed by numerous embraces.
“I could not ask for anyone better in the family,” Gwyneth admitted. “You will be most welcome – most welcome.”
“I feel that I am already a part of all of you though. Well…nearly all of you,” and her eyes flashed in Isabelle’s direction. “My dear…perhaps you should withdraw to the kitchen and assist with preparing something that will maintain us until breakfast. Do you think you can manage that simple task, Belle?” She saw the flash of contempt in her future stepdaughter’s eyes and realized that young Ben was right: it was time Isabelle was married off before she finally became more outspoken and told her father exactly what was going on in his household when he was not about. Particularly her treatment by her relations. Considering the slight possibility that Belle might attempt to ruin all their plans, perhaps now was the time to have a nice discussion with one of Ben’s friends. For some reason, several appeared to be quite drawn to the girl.
When Belle nodded her understanding, Nicole smirked. “Oh – she is an obedient little thing, isn’t she?” She lowered her voice and looked over at Julia. “I’m certain she won’t mind taking on a few more duties along with those she performs for all of you.”
“She will not have a choice,” Julia assured her. “Father may love her but he appreciates a peaceful household and for her to scandalize the family by running to him with her tales…I simply don’t think he would appreciate it.”
“So he should have few objections should I begin to do my duty as…well…should I make a suggestion here and there regarding what should be done about her future?”
The grins on the faces of her friends – as well as Isabelle’s stunned expression – gave her the response she needed She took a deep, satisfied breath. “Hmm…I have been wanting to ask what in the world is that scent? The one coming from those trees over there.”
The small group looked to the right, where she was pointing and Isabelle – annoyed that this woman was attempting to make herself mistress already – said, “Eucalyptus. Those are eucalyptus trees. Father had them brought here since they’re not indigenous, so that our mother might enjoy them. She quite loved them, you see.”
“Hmm…eucalyptus.” She shook her head. “I really don’t care for them. I don’t find it a very pleasant fragrance at all, not at all. I think…Well…I think a nice row of hedges will be much nicer…don’t you?”
Her future step children all stammered their approval…except for Isabelle, who immediately withdrew into the house before she choked on the false sweetness.