A GENTLEMAN OF FORTUNE (Chapter One)
Richmond, Wednesday 27th May 1806
My Dear Eliza
The great Mrs Lansdale is no more.
She was carried off on Tuesday night by a sudden seizure. It is a very heavy loss, for now the neighbourhood can no longer discuss the alarming symptoms of her nervous complaints, nor can it exclaim over every rumoured disagreement between the lady and her nephew.
However, it seems we are not done with Mrs Lansdale; she may yet provide a subject of conversation – for there is already an alarming rumour begun about her death.
Besides that half-pleasurable sorrow which is always felt at the death of a fine lady one hardly knows, there is a great distrust of the nephew. For it has not passed without notice that he has lost a remarkably tyrannical relation and gained a very fine inheritance.
Miss Dido Kent lifted her pen from the page and gazed beyond the little pool of light thrown by her candle, to the open window and the warm darkness beyond. She knew that she should not continue. What she was about to write was hardly proper. A letter should contain news but never gossip, and the great rule was to mention no person or event which could not be written about with charity.
But then, Dido mused with a smile, if the rule were adhered to too faithfully, letters would become so exceedingly dull that they would not be worth getting. They would scarcely justify their cost to the receiver.
And, besides, she had a very good reason for communicating this particular piece of gossip to her sister.
It is the odious Mrs Midgely who has begun this rumour. She has ‘the gravest doubts’ about Mrs Lansdale’s death. Mrs Midgely considers it as being altogether ‘too convenient’ for the nephew. In short, she believes that he took steps to hurry his poor aunt out of this world…
There! It was said. And very shocking it seemed now that it was written down.
Please do not blame me for repeating this slander, Eliza. If you will only keep from throwing my letter aside in disgust – and will but continue reading to the end – I hope you will understand why I must write to you upon this subject.
You see, it all came out yesterday during Flora’s exploring party to the river.
And a very pleasant party it would have been, but for Mrs Midgely and her venomous conversation. Everyone was punctual, the sun shone upon us and there was an abundance of walking about, sitting down, fine views, pigeon pie and cold lamb.
Sir Joshua Carrisbrook was returned from town in time to join us – which pleased Flora greatly. And, by the by, it seems that what we had heard of Sir Joshua is true – he is to be married again, and very soon. And you may tell all his friends at Bellfield that he seems vastly contented – and in a great hurry to get to church! For, by his own account, the lady only gave her consent a week ago, but he is determined to be married before the end of another week and has got himself a special licence for that purpose. I suppose he does not wish to wear out what youth he may suppose remains to him in waiting a full three weeks for the banns to be called.
It is extraordinary to see a man of his advanced years so very much in love! And I could not but pity him; for he was so wanting to tell us all of how he was soon to become ‘the very happiest of men’ and to enumerate the many virtues and talents of his lady; and he had scarcely begun to describe her musical genius and had not spoken one word about whose music she chiefly plays, when his happiness was quite hurried out of the way by Mrs Midgely who was wanting to be talking herself.
So I confess that I remain in ignorance upon the important issue of whether the future Lady Carrisbrook delights most in concertos or in folk airs – and I cannot even tell you what her maiden name may be…
But, to return to Mrs Midgely and her suspicions. By her account, Mr Vane, the apothecary, is uneasy about Mrs Lansdale’s death. He says that, ‘there was nothing in Mrs Lansdale’s general condition to make him expect such a seizure as carried her off! Which,’ says Mrs Midgely, looking about at us all, with a very red face and a satisfied manner, ‘which, I think you will all agree, seems very odd indeed, does it not?’
‘Oh, but I do not know that it is so very odd!’
This mild protest came from little Miss Prentice – Mrs Midgely’s boarder – who seems to rent from Mrs Midgely not only her back parlour but also a share in her right to spy upon all the grand people of the neighbourhood.
‘If I must give my opinion,’ says Miss Prentice – though no one there had asked for her opinion – ‘I do not think it is so very odd at all. It does sometimes happen that a person can be taken with a sudden attack such as they have never had before. For it happened to poor Lord…’
But Mrs Midgely had no patience to let her go on. For once Miss Prentice is begun upon lords and sirs there is no end of it.
‘Mr Vane,’ says Mrs Midgely, speaking very loud, ‘is very much puzzled by the lady’s death. And, in my opinion, he ought to take the appropriate steps.’ And she lowered her voice to a suitably portentous whisper. ‘I have told him that he must speak to the magistrates.’
And then we had all to listen to a great many accounts of what I had heard many times since coming to Richmond: of how Mrs Lansdale had demanded a great deal of attention from her nephew – on account of her many illnesses – that he had often wanted to ‘pursue his own pleasures’ in town, but had been restrained by her poor health and nervous disposition which would not permit her to be left alone. Mrs M was very eloquent upon these subjects – and no less so upon the subject of how ‘young men these days’ do not like to have their pleasures curtailed.
Well, Eliza, what I have not told you of yet, is how very distressed poor Flora was looking all the while that this was carrying on. For, you see, Mr Henry Lansdale, the nephew – this very gentleman that Mrs M was slandering – is a great favourite with our cousin. She and her husband met the Lansdales at Ramsgate last autumn and, though I have not yet been introduced to the young man, I have observed that she always speaks very highly of him.
I do not think Mrs Midgely knows of Flora’s connection with the Lansdales and believes them to be strangers to her, as they are to everyone else here in Richmond. At least I sincerely hope that she knows nothing of the friendship – or else she was being unpardonably rude to be talking so of her hostess’s acquaintances! (Though, in truth, I do not put anything beyond the licence that woman allows her tongue!)
However, I think that, maybe, Mrs Midgely’s ward, young Mary Bevan, was quick-witted enough to suspect the truth, from her gentle efforts to smooth things over. She pointed out, in her quiet precise way, that, ‘Mr Vane had been attending upon Mrs Lansdale for little more than a month,’ and suggested that, ‘he might not have a very accurate knowledge of all the poor lady’s disorders and symptoms.’
This did little to stop the abuse; but one must admire the real elegance of mind which prompted it; and one cannot help but wonder how such a pleasant, sensible girl can have been brought up by the dreadful Mrs M.
But, to return to Flora. She was close to tears by the time the carriages came, and she broke down completely in our journey home.
‘I cannot understand,’ she said again and again, ‘why Mrs Midgely should say such things! Why should she wish to malign poor Mr Lansdale? And why should she wish to persuade the apothecary to cause trouble for him? I have never known her be so very unkind before.’
And, in all honesty, neither can I understand it, Eliza. It is a level of interference and trouble-making far beyond the usual malice of gossip.
Poor Flora! She keeps to her room today with the headache which, I make no doubt, was brought on by yesterday’s distress. Her sufferings are, I believe, all the worse for being unfixed and uncertain; for neither she nor I can judge the exact degree of danger in which Mr Lansdale might stand – I mean if Mr Vane should yield to the tiresome woman’s advice and refer the matter to the magistrate. And, since Flora’s husband is still absent upon business in Ireland, we have no gentleman here to whom we can turn for advice upon such a delicate matter.
And this, my dear sister, is the reason for my troubling you with this most unpleasant business. It occurs to me that, since you are staying at Bellfield Hall, you might seek advice on our behalf. Would you be so kind as to ask Mr William Lomax…
Dido was forced, by the shaking in her hand, to stop writing.
There was already a blot spreading through her neat black words. And her cheeks were burning too. She laid down her pen and turned her face into the night air which was blowing in through the open window of her bedchamber, bringing with it the scents of roses and cutgrass and dew – and the high, shivering call of an owl from somewhere down beside the river.
She had thought that she had long outlived the age at which the mere writing of a gentleman’s name could bring a blush to her cheeks. Yet she could not help but wonder what Mr Lomax would think – how he would look – what he would say – when Eliza mentioned her name and her request.
Dido’s situation with regard to this gentleman was a particularly delicate one.
Mr William Lomax was the man of business who overlooked the running of her niece’s husband’s estate at Bellfield Hall. Last autumn, when she had been at Bellfield, Dido had come to esteem him very highly indeed and, before she was called away, she had been certain – almost certain – as certain as a lady can ever allow herself to be – that he returned her regard: that he was, in fact, only prevented from making a declaration by a want of wealth and independence.
Then she had been full of hope; sure that they could not be separated for ever; sure that the particular circumstances which kept him poor just then, could be removed. But now, after six months of hearing almost nothing of him, it was all but impossible not to be desponding: not to believe that her influence over him was weakening; not to calculate very exactly her five and thirty years, or to disregard the opinion of all her friends who had long reckoned her a settled old maid.
As she had once overheard her sister-in-law, Margaret, remarking: ‘An heiress may fairly look for a husband at any age. But a portionless woman had better give up all such thoughts when she is thirty, and spare her family the expense of going much into company. For it will all be wasted. Nothing will come of it.’
Until she had come to know Mr Lomax, Dido had been, if not quite content to be a spinster, then at least reconciled to it because she had never found in the usual round of dinners and balls and visits much temptation to change her state. But a remarkable set of circumstances had brought her together with Mr Lomax and authorised a kind of communication far beyond the usual littleness of social intercourse. She had learnt the pleasure of sharing ideas and confiding in a way which she had never known before. And now…
And now, as she sat beside the window of her bedchamber in Flora’s pleasant summer villa, she was beginning to suspect her own motives.
For, oddly enough, it had been a murder and the mystery associated with it which had first brought her together with Mr Lomax. So, was she now only taking an interest in this affair of Mrs Lansdale’s death because it was a means of bringing herself once more to the gentleman’s attention?
She smiled. Hers must be a very singular affection if it could only thrive upon infamy and mystery! But she would not allow one half of her to suspect the other. There could be nothing wrong in only asking a gentleman’s advice and, besides, she really did wish to discover the exact degree of danger in which Mr Lansdale stood.
Would you be so kind as to ask Mr William Lomax – for I know that he has a very thorough understanding of the law – whether, in his opinion, Mr Lansdale is in any danger? Might Mr Vane’s information lead the magistrates to bring a prosecution? And, if it should go so far, how heavily would the testimony of such a man as this apothecary tell against him? It cannot be denied that the young man has gained a great deal from his aunt’s death: if there was a suspicion of murder, would not that suspicion fall immediately upon him?
Flora is most anxious that we should somehow find a way of putting an end to these dreadful rumours, before they have any serious consequences.
I agree that it ought to be attempted; but I cannot conceive how such a woman as Mrs Midgely is to be worked upon. I doubt she has ever, in the whole course of her life, held her tongue at someone else’s request. And she seemed to take such an inordinate pleasure in spreading her poison that I could not help but wonder whether she has some grudge or cause against the young man. Something which might make her particularly venomous in this case.
And I do not think we can silence her without first discovering her motive.
A GENTLEMAN OF FORTUNE Copyright © 2009 by Anna Dean