Cast Adrift - Book 01byMarshAlien©
"And your marriage, I'm afraid, has probably brought on another episode. William suggested that you might have received a letter from him?"
Blushing, Caroline nodded.
"And you still have it?"
"I do," Caroline acknowledged. "I thought that Geoffrey --"
"Should know of his father's attitude. Quite right. I will not ask to see it, but based on letters that I myself received, I can guess at its contents. You may wish to consider now, Caroline, whether or not you would be better off destroying it entirely. You might also consider whether or not you would be better off in another town. I have sent a letter to the Earl to inform him of his son's death. It was sent by as slow a post as I could reasonably find, but it will no doubt inflame his derangement again."
"And you think he will look for me?" Caroline asked in horror.
"It is not likely, but it is not outside the realm of possibility."
"For what purpose?"
"Simply because he is angered," James explained. "He has a substantial sum of money at his disposal, and men who will do anything to receive his very generous payments."
After James's departure, Caroline pondered whether it would even be possible to move, let alone feasible. In the end, though, she decided to stay. She had no resources to compete with the Earl of Prescott, and if he could track her down after her marriage, he could do so again with little trouble. She had already arranged for the services of the town's best midwife, and her solicitor, Mr. Digby, appeared to be taking care of her money with efficiency and attention. The attention was even too much, at times. She found herself wishing that he would dispense with his biweekly call in favor of a simple, concise written summary of her holdings.
At the same time, though, she did nothing to advertise her newfound wealth. Still in mourning, she needed no new clothes other than progressively larger and larger outfits to cover her swelling belly. She lived quietly, her only indulgence a monthly shipment of books that James had helped arrange from a London bookseller.
Michael Geoffrey Stanhope was born on July 22, 1813, at four in the morning. His birth was remarkably uneventful, and within hours he was at his mother's breast.
"Will you please stop interfering with my work?"
"I'm sorry. I just wanted to help."
"You are taking food from the mouths of my children."
Caroline looked at Lucy's fierce glare and burst into laughter.
"Lucy Burton. You know perfectly well that you have no children."
"Nevertheless," Lucy said with asperity, "I will, someday, and I should like to have a respectable job, a job that includes baking the bread."
"Oh, all right. It's just that with Michael sleeping so much better now, I thought I could begin to help you again."
"I let you help me before the babe was born to take your mind off of things. Now you have him to attend to, and I am perfectly capable of handling the household duties on my own. Caroline."
"Very well. Lucy. I shall retire once again to my books. Oh, Lucy, did you see the latest copy of the newspapers that Mr. Stanhope was so good to send me?"
Lucy had always been careful to hide her inability to read, and simply gave Caroline a smile and said she had not.
"Oh, Lucy. It's so exciting. Geoffrey's brother William is to be received at the Court of St. James. While Lord Wellington was driving the French out of Spain, our soldiers were attacking two islands in the Americas. And apparently Captain Stanhope acted so promptly and courageously in covering their retreat both times that he may perhaps be knighted."
"How marvelous," Lucy said.
'Isn't it?" Caroline gushed. "Oh and Lucy, Mr. Digby will be here at eleven o'clock."
Lucy's face quickly darkened.
"I don't like that man."
"You have made that all too plain, Lucy, and for the life of me I do not understand why."
Lucy bit her tongue and continued kneading the dough.
"He has ably managed my money, and he has promised that Geoffrey's estate will be settled very soon."
Lucy slammed the bread down on the counter.
"Why do you dislike him?" Caroline pressed her.
With a sigh, Lucy put the bread down and turned to her mistress.
"Because, Caroline -- because he leers at you."
"Oh, he does not."
"When you are not looking, he is continually glancing at your breasts," Lucy insisted.
Caroline stared at the girl in shock.
"That one day, two months back, when the baby didn't take enough milk? And it stained your dress? I thought he would come out of his trousers."
"Lucy!" Caroline was horrified by the very idea. "He is a gentleman."
"He is a man," Lucy said as she resumed her work with vigor. "Gentle ain't in it."
"Nevertheless," Caroline said.
"Nevertheless," Lucy mumbled with a significant look at her mistress's dress.
When Caroline's lawyer arrived promptly at eleven, he was greeted by a girl in a clean apron and a forced smile. Lucy promptly showed him into the drawing room and curtly informed him that Mrs. Stanhope would be with him shortly.
It was the first time that she had kept him waiting, and he was displeased.
Jonathan Digby, Esq., was a man predisposed to displeasure. He had originally had high hopes for his provincial practice, assuming that it would bring him into contact with those he considered his betters. He fully expected that those gentlemen would recognize a kindred spirit in their midst, and help him ascend the ladder of social and political influence. Instead, he found himself only a step above absolute penury, relying for his bread on the crumbs thrown his way by the local merchants who saw him as a cut-rate solution to their tawdry problems.
The awe he had felt when Sir Edward Pelham had entered his office had long since disappeared. It had been replaced with resentment. He resented Caroline Stanhope's possession of assets that were now valued at over six thousand pounds. He resented the way that her brother-in-law continually questioned the fees that he charged Geoffrey Stanhope's estate. But what he resented most was Caroline's failure to act as if she had six thousand pounds, whether she deserved them or not. She still had the same threadbare sofa that she had had when he first visited her. The drawing room still possessed the same hideous drapes, the same horrid carpet, and the same floor still badly in need of refinishing. It was as if it were not worth spending any of her six thousand pounds in Dartmouth, because the town was only a temporary residence for her at this point. A temporary residence for her, and a permanent prison for him.
He stood when she entered, disguising a frown at the thick, black dress she had selected for their meeting. It was true that she always wore black, but not always a dress in a fabric quite this heavy.
"Mrs. Stanhope." He bowed ever so slightly. "I trust I see you well."
"Thank you, Mr. Digby. I am well." This time she had not missed the way his eyes swept up her body as she entered the room. "What may I do for you?"
Lucy chose that moment to interrupt with the tea, and it wasn't until she had left, and closed the door behind her, that Digby felt comfortable beginning the discussion.
"First of all, Caroline, the good news," he said. "Your funds are doing well, and it appears that your next dividend will be in excess of what I had originally thought. Do you have any instructions, or shall I simply proceed as I have been?"
It was the same pro forma request that he made on each visit, and he was stunned when she failed to simper and agree that his choices to date had been perfect.
"I should like to purchase coal, Mr. Digby."
"A cellar full of coal," she instructed. "For the winter."
"Caroline," he said after a pause to collect his thoughts, "I have a fiduciary duty to ensure that you spend your money wisely. It is only the third week in October. Are you worried about the coal merchants running low this year?"
"Do not make the mistake of patronizing me, Mr. Digby. I am not an educated woman in the classical sense, but I know enough to read books, and I understand the signs of a harsh winter approaching."
Caroline's books were another source of her attorney's displeasure. The idea of a woman in need of that many books was absurd.
"I apologize, Ca -- Mrs. Stanhope," he said slowly, bowing low to hide his face. "I meant no disrespect. I will of course follow your instructions as always. Now to the bad news. There will be an even longer delay in closing your late husband's estate. It seems that the will is being contested."
Caroline looked up sharply. "Contested?"
"Challenged, if you will. An attorney from Exeter has entered an appearance on behalf of the Earl of Prescott, claiming that the will is a forgery."
"Even if it were a forgery," Caroline seethed with indignation, "my position as Geoffrey's wife --"
"Is also being questioned," Digby said smoothly.
"What?" Caroline froze.
This time it was a smile that Digby hid. This was the young, vulnerable girl that he had first met in May. The girl who had been heavy with child, unsure of what to do with the fortune that fate had dropped in her lap. The girl who would have come to place sole reliance on the financial acumen of her attorney but for that foppish brother-in-law of hers.
"They have produced a statement from the minister who performed your marriage ceremony," Digby coolly explained. "It is his opinion that the marriage was a sham, and that there was not valid consent on both sides."
"He lies," Caroline protested.
"Yes, of course. But a minister's word will be difficult to contradict, particularly in front of Judge Tutwell, whose brother is also a minister."
"But my brother-in-law, James, was there, and my two friends, Clara and Elizabeth."
A sodomite and two shopkeeper's assistants. Not a case that Jonathan Digby was looking forward to convince a barrister to try to make.
"I believe our best chance, in this instance, is to await the return of the Classic, whose officers witnessed your husband's will and will be able to attest to the validity of his signature."
"The Classic?" Caroline's shoulders sagged. "But Sir Edward just put to sea again."
The Classic had stopped in Portsmouth for a brief refit after its recent blockade duty, and Sir Edward had ridden over to pay his respects. He had informed Caroline that the Admiralty had in fact purchased both the frigate and the sloop, but was bound by the law to pay Lieutenant Stanhope's share of the prize into the chancery court where the will was being probated. It was only two weeks ago that she had received another letter from Sir Edward, indicating that he was sailing for another six months off the French Mediterranean coast.
"I fully understand your distress, Caro -- Mrs. Stanhope," Digby murmured. "And I have sent letters to Sir Edward, seeking his return at the first possible instance. In the meantime, though, you must be prepared for a delay of several months in obtaining your inheritance. Please rest assured that the dividends alone on the moneys under my management are more than ample for your current needs."
"But why?" Caroline lapsed once again into a miserable reverie. "Why would Geoffrey's father . . .?"
"Money," Digby answered confidently. "Money is the answer to everything."
"Money?" James Stanhope chortled over lunch on his next visit, in early November. "Your Mr. Digby seems to be a capable enough lawyer from what I have seen, but my father already has more money than Digby will see in his lifetime."
"Then what?" Caroline asked.
James answered after a long pause.
"He wants your name."
"My name?" Caroline gasped.
"Stanhope. At the moment he cannot bear the thought that you're Caroline Stanhope and that your son is Michael Stanhope."
"He is Geoffrey's son," Caroline protested before she suddenly understood the import of her father-in-law's efforts. "Oh, my God. If he proves that we were not validly married, then Michael..."
"Would be considered a bastard, yes," James finished the sentence. "But I shouldn't worry, Caroline. This is chancery court, after all, and they are more than happy to have an excuse to delay your case as long as possible. And then Sir Edward's return will permit the court to settle the will issue without ever having to reach the validity of your marriage."
"But if something were to happen to Sir Edward? What then?"
"Ah, well, my father has apparently already suborned the minister who performed the ceremony, and my understanding is that both of your young friends have been encouraged to emigrate, one to Canada and the other to Australia, both with unexpected new husbands and substantial new funds to help them on their way.
"But you still have me, Caroline."
Caroline stared at the intense expression on her brother-in-law's face.
"But it would cost you, wouldn't it?" she asked softly. "The secret that your father threatened to reveal..."
"It would be embarrassing, yes. Both to me and to my, eh, current companion."
"Then I could not ask you to --"
"I will do it regardless of whether you ask or not, Caroline Stanhope," James said fiercely. "I have one brother who died bravely in battle, and another who may soon be knighted for his own bravery. My sister, rather than lose her husband to the madness of our father, has forsaken his money and settled in the New World."
His sudden smile broke the tension, and he waved a hand in the air with nonchalant grace.
"It is simply a question of upholding the family honor," he said breezily. He took a brief look around the room before turning back to Caroline.
"Your family and mine."
"Thank you, James," Caroline murmured, putting her hand on his. "I hope it doesn't come to that."
"And I doubt it will. My father is a patriot, and is incapable, even in his most violent moods, of ordering that a British naval officer be harmed. And the chances of a single ship coming to grief, particularly given French cowardice, must be reckoned very small. No, Caroline. Do not fret. Sir Edward will return. He and his officers will attest to the will. And under English law, it matters not a whit whether you are married to Geoffrey if the will is valid."
"It matters to me," Caroline said fiercely.
"Of course it does," James comforted her. "But not to the court. They will probate the will, and ignore completely the question of your marriage. The money will be yours, along with your good name, and you will be able to raise little Michael in peace."
"How much longer do you think?"
"I have made some discreet inquiries among some acquaintances of mine who are well-situated at the Admiralty," James winked. "I believe that His Majesty's Ship the Classic will be ordered to return for some unexpected repairs in the not too distant future."
Caroline sat back in her chair, relaxing for the first time since lunch had begun.
"Speaking of my sister, though, I have brought you a letter." James smiled broadly as he handed over an envelope.
"From America? But we are at war."
"In general, yes," James admitted. "But more with some places than others, apparently. In the New England, where Courtney lives, it is considered more of an interference with trade than an actual war. In any event, letters pass back and forth via Canada, such as mine to her, and hers to you."
I write to welcome you to our family. Please accept my deepest condolences at the death of your husband, my youngest brother Geoffrey. I'm sure that you can believe that Geoffrey was at once my dearest friend and my greatest nemesis. I would never have believed that our estate contained quite so many toads and snakes if Geoffrey had not brought them to my attention by leaving them for me in my room. But my overriding memories are of the times when he took delight in explaining to me something new and wonderful that he had seen while out riding, even if I had been right next to him at the time he saw it.
You have, as I'm sure you now realize, married into a complicated family. I have no doubt that Father is still a good man at heart, but his illness has driven all of us, with the exception of William, far, far away from him. Please pity him as I do, and join me in praying that one day his senses will be restored, and our family along with it.
My husband and I have made a new life for ourselves here in America. Fortunately, Rory had some funds available to him, and we were able to establish ourselves as merchants in Boston, Massachusetts. Despite our uneasy relationship with the local Indians, our business has continued to grow, and when this wretched war is over, we may be able to make a return visit to England and Scotland. Perhaps our three -- Riley, age 7; Anne, age 5; and George, age 2 -- will be able to meet their cousin Michael, who is currently a future Earl of Prescott. And who is likely to remain so if William fails to settle down and persists in endangering his life with his mad heroics (which are a source of secret pride here although perhaps not received quite so well in President Madison's South).
Caroline saw a single tear fall to the page as she realized that her sister-in-law's letter was written without the knowledge that her father was trying to nullify the connection between the two of them, depriving Michael of any potential standing in the Stanhope family.
When this wretched war is over, it will be easier for us to correspond. In the meantime, I have enclosed a drawing that Geoffrey had done of himself shortly after he joined the navy. As precious as it has always been to me, I am sure that you will treasure it more than I do, and I shall remain,
Caroline opened the envelope and pulled out the small drawing. The artist had captured, even at the young age at which it must have been done, Geoffrey's wild joy and rakish grin. Her eyes brimming with a fresh set of tears, she suddenly thrust the drawing and letter away before the flood ruined the only picture that she would ever possess. "I could not bear not sharing his name," she finally said to William.
"There, there, my love." James put a hand on her arm. "The Classic will be home in due course. The question will not even arise."
The Classic arrived in London in mid-December. The necessary affidavits were executed and placed in the appropriate file in the chancery court's records. And there they sat. They were as cold as the rest of England was on the evening in the middle of January when Jonathan Digby knocked on Caroline Stanhope's door shortly after eight o'clock in the evening.
He smiled as he saw the door pulled open a crack.
"Yes, Mrs. Stanhope, I hope I find you well."
"Er, yes, certainly. It has only been three days since we last spoke. Did we have another appointment?"
"No," Digby said with an affected shiver. "I was in the neighborhood, and simply stopped by to tell you the news."
"News?" Caroline yanked open the heavy door, and Digby stepped inside. It was a moment he had been dreaming about, and planning, ever since his last visit had ended. Even before then, as the cold had settled into Dartmouth, his thoughts had returned again and again to Caroline Stanhope and her cellar full of coal. In his view, the woman needed more than a husband. She needed to be pregnant once again, as she had been when he had first called upon her. She needed to have her lovely breasts kept filled with milk. Kept dripping with milk, in fact, for the benefit of both her babies and her husband.
He had been particularly careful on his recent visits, as he had instinctively sensed some discomfort on her part several months ago. The maid didn't like him, but he didn't much care. That little bitch, pretty in her own way, would be taken care of tonight as well.