Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out.
The Duchess of Malfi
To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead
body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was
still twitching upon the floor.
I stared at him, not quite taking in the fact that he had just
collapsed at my feet. He lay, curled like a question mark, his
evening suit ink-black against the white marble of the floor. He
was writhing, his fingers knotted.
I leaned as close to him as my corset would permit.
“Edward, we have guests. Do get up. If this is some sort of
“He is not jesting, my lady. He is convulsing.”
An impatient figure in black pushed past me to kneel at
Edward’s side. He busied himself for a few brisk moments,
palpating and pulse-taking, while I bobbed a bit, trying to see
over his shoulder. Behind me the guests were murmuring, buzzing,
pushing closer to get a look of their own. There was a little
thrill of excitement in the air. After all, it was not every
evening that a baronet collapsed senseless in his own music room.
And Edward was proving rather better entertainment than the soprano
we had engaged.
Through the press, Aquinas, our butler, managed to squeeze in next
to my elbow.
I looked at him, grateful to have an excuse to turn away from the
spectacle on the floor.
“Aquinas, Sir Edward has had an attack.”
“And would be better served in his own bed,” said the
gentleman from the floor. He rose, lifting Edward into his arms
with a good deal of care and very little effort, it seemed. But
Edward had grown thin in the past months. I doubted he weighed much
more than I.
“Follow me,” I instructed, although Aquinas actually
led the way out of the music room. People moved slowly out of our
path, as though they regretted the little drama ending so quickly.
There were some polite murmurs, some mournful clucking. I heard
snatches as I passed through them.
“The curse of the Greys, it is—”
“So young. But of course his father never saw
“Never make old bones—”
“Feeble heart. Pity, he was always such a pleasant
I moved faster, staring straight ahead so that I did not have to
meet their eyes. I kept my gaze fixed on Aquinas’ broad,
black-wool back, but all the time I was conscious of those voices
and the sound of footsteps behind me, the footsteps of the
gentleman who was carrying my husband. Edward groaned softly as we
reached the stairs and I turned. The gentleman’s face was
“Aquinas, help the gentleman—”
“I have him,” he interrupted, brushing past me. Aquinas
obediently led him to Edward’s bedchamber. Together they
settled Edward onto the bed, and the gentleman began to loosen his
clothes. He flicked a glance toward Aquinas.
“Has he a doctor?”
“Yes, sir. Doctor Griggs, Golden Square.”
“Send for him. Although I dare say it will be too
Aquinas turned to me where I stood, hovering on the threshold. I
never went into Edward’s room. I did not like to do so now.
It felt like an intrusion, a trespass on his privacy.
“Shall I send for Lord March as well, my lady?”
I blinked at Aquinas. “Why should Father come? He is no
But Aquinas was quicker than I. I had thought the gentleman meant
that Edward would have recovered from his attack by the time Doctor
Griggs arrived. Aquinas, who had seen more of the world than I,
He looked at me, his eyes carefully correct, and then I understood
why he wanted to send for Father. As head of the family he would
have certain responsibilities.
I nodded slowly. “Yes, send for him.” I moved into the
room on reluctant legs. I knew I should be there, doing whatever
little bit that I could for Edward. But I stopped at the side of
the bed. I did not touch him.
“And Lord Belmont?” Aquinas queried.
I thought for a moment. “No, it is Friday. Parliament is
That much was a mercy. Father I could cope with. But not my eldest
brother as well. “And I suppose you ought to call for the
carriages. Send everyone home. Make my apologies.”
He left us alone then, the stranger and I. We stood on opposite
sides of the bed, Edward convulsing between us. He stopped after a
moment and the gentleman placed a finger at his throat.
“His pulse is very weak,” he said finally. “You
should prepare yourself.”
I did not look at him. I kept my eyes fixed on Edward’s pale
It shone with sweat, its surface etched with lines of pain. This
was not how I wanted to remember him.
“I have known him for more than twenty years,” I said
finally, my voice tight and strange. “We were children
together. We used to play pirates and knights of the Round Table.
Even then, I knew his heart was not sound. He used to go quite blue
sometimes when he was overtired. This is not
I looked up then to find the stranger’s eyes on me. They were
the darkest eyes I had ever seen, witch-black and watchful. His
gaze was not friendly. He was regarding me coldly, as a merchant
will appraise a piece of goods to determine its worth. I dropped my
eyes at once.
“Thank you for your concern for my husband’s health,
sir. You have been most helpful. Are you a friend of
He did not reply at once. Edward made a noise in the back of his
throat and the stranger moved swiftly, rolling him onto his side
and thrusting a basin beneath his mouth. Edward retched, horribly,
groaning. When he finished, the gentleman put the basin to the side
and wiped his mouth with his handkerchief. Edward gave a little
whimper and began to shiver. The gentleman watched him
“Not a friend, no. A business associate,” he said
finally. “My name is Nicholas Brisbane.”
“I know who you are, my lady.”
Startled at his rudeness, I looked up, only to find those eyes
again, fixed on me with naked hostility. I opened my mouth to
reproach him, but Aquinas appeared then. I turned to him,
“The carriages are being brought round now, my lady. I have
sent Henry for Doctor Griggs and Desmond for his lordship. Lady
Otterbourne and Mr. Phillips both asked me to convey their concern
and their willingness to help should you have need of
“Lady Otterbourne is a meddlesome old gossip and Mr. Phillips
would be no use whatsoever. Send them home.”
I was conscious of Mr. Brisbane behind me, listening to every word.
I did not care. For some unaccountable reason, the man thought ill
of me already. I did not mind if he thought worse.
Aquinas left again, but I did not resume my post by the bed. I took
a chair next to the door and remained there, saying nothing and
wondering what was going to happen to all of the food. We had
ordered far too much in any event. Edward never liked to run short.
I could always tell Cook to serve it in the servants’ hall,
but after a few days even the staff would tire of it. Before I
could decide what to do with the lobster patties and salad molds,
Aquinas entered again, leading Doctor Griggs. The elderly man was
perspiring freely, patting his ruddy face with a handkerchief and
gasping. He had taken the stairs too quickly. I rose and he took my
“I was afraid of this,” he murmured. “The curse
of the Greys, it is. All snatched before their time. My poor
girl.” I smiled feebly at him. Doctor Griggs had attended my
mother at my birth, as well as her nine other confinements. We had
known each other too long to stand on ceremony. He patted my hand
and moved to the bed. He felt for Edward’s pulse, shaking his
head as he did so. Edward vomited again, and Doctor Griggs watched
him carefully, examining the contents of the basin. I turned
I tried not to hear the sounds coming from the bed, the groans and
the rattling breaths. I would have stopped my ears with my hands,
but I knew it would look childish and cowardly. Griggs continued
his examination, but before he finished Aquinas stepped into the
“Lord March, my lady.” He moved aside and Father
“Julia,” he said, opening his arms. I went into them,
burying my face against his waistcoat. He smelled of tobacco and
book leather. He kept one arm tucked firmly around me as he looked
over my head.
“Griggs, you damned fool. Julia should have been sent
The doctor made some reply, but I did not hear it. My father was
pushing me gently out the door. I tried to look past him, to see
what they were doing to Edward, but Father moved his body and
prevented me. He gave me a sad, gentle smile. Anyone else might
have mistaken that smile, but I did not. I knew he expected
obedience. I nodded.
“I shall wait in my room.”
“That would be best. I will come when there is something to
My maid, Morag, was waiting for me. She helped me out of my silk
gown and into something more suitable. She offered me warm milk or
brandy, but I knew I would never be able to hold anything down. I
only wanted to sit, watching the clock on the mantel as it ticked
away the minutes left.
Morag continued to fuss, poking at the fire and muttering
complaints about the work to come. She was right about that. There
would be much work for her when I put on widow’s weeds. It
was unlucky to keep crepe in the house, I reminded myself. It would
have to be sent for after Edward passed. I thought about such
things—crepe for the mirrors, black plumes for the
horses—because then I did not have to think about what was
happening in Edward’s room. It was rather like waiting for a
birth, these long, tense minutes of sitting, straining one’s
ears on tiptoe for the slightest sound. I expected to hear
something, but the walls were thick and I heard nothing. Even when
the clock struck midnight, the little voice on my mantel chiming
twelve times, I could not hear the tall case clock in the hall. I
started to mention the peculiarity of it to Morag, because one
could always hear the case clock from any room in the house, when I
realized what it meant.
“Morag, the clocks have stopped.”
She looked at me, her lips parted to speak, but she said nothing.
Instead she bowed her head and began to pray. A moment later, the
door opened. It was Father. He said nothing. I went to him and his
hand cradled my head like a benediction. He held me for a very long
time, as he had not done since I was a child.
“It is all right, my dear,” he said finally, sounding
older and more tired than I had ever heard him. “It is
But of course, he was entirely wrong. It was only the
He heaps up riches, and he heaps up sorrow,
It’s his today, but who’s his heir tomorrow?
“The Vanity of All Worldly Things”
The days leading up to the funeral were dire, as such days almost
always are. Too many people, saying too many pointless
things—the same pointless things that everyone always says.
Such a tragedy, so unexpected, so very, very dreadful. And no
matter how much you would like to scream at them to go away and
leave you alone, you cannot, even if they are your family.
Especially if they are your family. In the week following
Edward’s death, I was inundated with March relations. They
flocked from the four corners of the kingdom, as mindful of the
pleasures of London as their family duty. As etiquette did not
permit me to be seen in public, they came to me at Grey House. The
men— uncles, brothers, cousins—briefly paid their
respects to Edward, laid out with awful irony in the music room,
then spent the rest of their time arguing politics and arranging
for amusements that would get them out of the house. My only
consolation was the fact that, like locusts, they managed to finish
off all of the leftover food from the night Edward died.
The women were little better. Under Aunt Hermia’s direction,
the funeral was planned, the burial arranged, and my household
turned entirely on its head. She carried around with her a notebook
filled with endless lists that she was forever consulting with a
frown or ticking off with a satisfied smile. There was the crepe to
be ordered, mourning wreaths, funeral cards, black-bordered writing
paper to be purchased, the announcement for the Times, and
of course my wardrobe.
“Unrelieved black,” she informed me, her brow furrowed
as she struggled to make out her own handwriting. “There must
be no sheen to the fabric and no white or grey,” she reminded
“I know.” I tried not to think of the new gowns,
delivered only the day before Edward’s death. They were pale,
soft colours, the shades of new flowers in spring. I should have to
give them to Morag to sell at the secondhand stalls now. They would
never dye dark enough to pass for mourning.
“No jewels, except hair jewelry,” Aunt Hermia was
saying. I repressed a shudder. I had never warmed to the notion of
wearing a dead person’s hair braided around my wrist or
knotted at my ears. “After a year and a day, you will be
permitted black fabric with a sheen, and deep purple or grey with a
black stripe. If you choose to wear black after that time, you may
relieve it with touches of white. Although,” she added with a
conspiratorial look, “I think a year is quite enough, and you
must do what you like after that.”
I glanced at my sister Portia, who was busy feeding her ancient pug
some rather costly crab fritters laced with caviar. She looked up
and wrinkled her nose at me over Puggy’s head.
“Don’t fret, dearest. You have always looked striking
I grimaced at her and turned back to Aunt Hermia, who was
deliberately ignoring Portia’s flippancy. As children, we had
been quite certain that Aunt Hermia was partially deaf. It was only
much later when we realized that there was absolutely nothing wrong
with her hearing. The trick of hearing only what she wanted had
enabled her to raise her widowed brother’s ten children with
some measure of sanity.
“Black stockings of course,” she was saying, “and
we shall have to order some new handkerchiefs edged in
“I am working on them now,” said my sister Bee from the
corner. Industrious as her namesake, she kept her head bowed over
her work, her needle whipping through the fine lawn with its load
of thin black silk.
“Very good, Beatrice. That will save time having them made
up, and I simply could not bear to purchase ready-made for
Julia.” Aunt Hermia paused, her pencil poised. “You
know, the queen has hers embroidered with black tears for Prince
Albert. What do you think of that?”
Bee lifted her head and smiled. “I think perhaps plain is
best. I mean to get through all of her handkerchiefs before I have
to return to Cornwall, and I shall be lucky just to finish the
“Of course, dear,” Aunt Hermia said. She returned to
her list, but I kept my eyes on Bee. She had not looked at me, and
I fancied that her preoccupation with my handkerchiefs was a means
of keeping herself too busy to do so. I wondered then how much she
knew, how much any of them knew. Marriage is a private thing
between a man and his wife, but blood calls to blood, or so my
father always said. Was it possible for them to know? I had said
nothing, and yet still, I wondered.…
“And we should tell Aquinas to prepare the China Room for
I swung round to face Aunt Hermia. The room had gone quite
productively silent. Bee was busy with her needlework, Portia and
Nerissa were writing out the funeral cards. Olivia immediately
picked up a book of hymns to peruse.
“Aunt Ursula? The Ghoul is coming?”
“Really, darling, I wish you children would not call her
that,” Aunt Hermia said, frowning. “She is a good and
decent soul. She only wishes to offer comfort in your
Portia smothered a snort. We all knew better than that. The
Ghoul’s purpose in life was not to give comfort, it was to
haunt the bereaved. She appeared at every deathbed, every funeral,
with her trunks of mourning clothes and memorial jewelry, reading
dreary poems and tippling the sherry when no one was looking. She
kept a sort of scrapbook of the funerals she had attended, rating
them by number of mourners, desirability of the gravesite and
quality of the food. The worst part of it was that she never left.
Instead, she stayed on, offering her own wretched brand of comfort
until the next family tragedy. We had been quite fortunate in
London, though. A spate of ill luck had carried off three of our
elderly uncles in Scotland in as many years. We had not seen her
“Julia?” Aunt Hermia’s voice was edged only
slightly with impatience, and I realized she must have been trying
to get my attention for some time.
“I am sorry, Aunt. I was woolgathering.”
She patted my hand. “Never mind, dear. I hear Uncle
Leonato’s wife is suffering again from her old lung
complaint. Perhaps she won’t last much longer.”
That was a small consolation. Uncle Leonato’s wife usually
hovered on the brink of death until he presented her with whatever
piece of jewelry or lavish trinket she had been pining for, then
she made a full recovery quickly enough. Still, there was a pack of
hunting-mad cousins in Yorkshire who were always highly unlucky.
Perhaps this season one of them might be mistaken for a
Aunt Hermia coughed gently and I looked up. “Olivia was
asking about the gravesite. She said there is a very nice spot just
beyond the Circle of Lebanon.”
The Circle of Lebanon in Highgate Cemetery, perhaps the most
fashionable address for the dead in all of London. That would have
appealed to Edward.
“That sounds fine. Whatever you think best.”
She ticked off another item in her notebook. “Now, what about
What followed was a spirited debate in which I took no part. I
tried to appear too grief-stricken to decide, but the truth was, I
could not bring myself to care. Edward was gone, there seemed
little point in arguing over what the choirboys sang. In the end,
my eldest sister, Olivia, prevailed by sheer strength of
personality. It did not matter. I never heard the boys sing at all.
In the same fashion, I saw the lilies, but I did not smell them. I
knew it was cold the day of Edward’s funeral because they
bundled me into a black astrakhan coat, but I felt nothing. I was
entirely numb, as though every nerve, every sense, every cell had
simply stopped functioning.
Perhaps it was best that way. I had begun to get snappish and
fretful. I had slept poorly since Edward’s death, and having
no peace, no privacy in my own home was beginning to tell. All I
wanted was to bury Edward and send my family home. I loved them,
but from a distance. Their quirks and eccentricities, for which we
Marches were justly famous, were magnified within the walls of Grey
Mercifully, most of them stayed with Father, but a few elected to
comfort me in my grief and had moved in, lock, stock and barrel.
The least offensive of these was my brother Valerius. A quiet,
somewhat sulky youth, he was six years my junior, and I think he
found my company marginally less repressive than Father’s.
Edward’s first cousin and heir also gave me little trouble.
Simon was sickly and bedridden, afflicted with the same heart
complaint that had taken all of his kinsmen. Like Edward he would
not make old bones, but it was my lot to care for him until he
The last of my new houseguests was the Ghoul, who had arrived with
the expected trunks and a lady’s maid half as old as God.
Aquinas had installed them in the China Room, which elicited a
flurry of complaints. The room was too cold, the exposure too
bright—the litany went on and on. I waved my hand, leaving
Aquinas to manage, which he did with his customary efficiency. A
small heater was installed, the heavy draperies were drawn, and a
fresh bottle of gin was placed on the dressing table, sherry having
apparently been given up in favor of something more potent. Since
then, I had heard nothing from her whatsoever, and I made a note to
instruct Aquinas to add a weekly bottle to the household
But as much as I complained about them, I was glad to have my
family around me as I moved through that awful day. I felt like a
sleepwalker, being shifted and guided and turned this way and that,
but feeling nothing. They told me later that the sermon was lovely.
I was glad of that. I had not listened, and I much suspected that
the vicar could not possibly have anything comforting to say. He
probably quoted Job, that absurd passage about flowers being cut
down. They always quote that. And he probably made some innocuous
observations about Edward, observations from a man who had not
known him. Edward had not been a great believer, nor was I for that
matter. We had been brought up to attend when absolutely necessary,
and to observe the conventions, but my family was populated with
free-thinking Radicals and Edward’s was simply lazy.
The end result was, I was certain, a eulogy that could have been
spoken over the body of any rich, youngish dead man. I did not like
to think of that. I did not like to know that Edward, the boy I had
loved and married, was already being lost. He was anonymous to the
vicar, to the grave digger, to anyone who passed his grave. No one
would remember his charm, his beautiful gilt hair, his sweetly
serious smile, his ability to tell jokes, his utter incompetence
with wine. I would be the only one to remember him as he truly was,
and I did not want to remember him at all.
I tried to imagine, as I stood over his open grave, what I would
have carved onto the stone. Nothing seemed appropriate. I ran Bible
verses and bits of poetry through my mind as the vicar droned on
about ashes and death, but nothing fit. I had a few months yet
before they would put the stone in place. They would wait until the
ground settled before they brought it. I knew that I had to think
of something, some brief commentary on his life, some scrap of wit
to sum him up, but that was impossible. Words are simple, Edward
had not been.
As I struggled to remember a snippet of Coleridge, a cloud passed
over, obscuring the sun and throwing the graveyard into chill
shadow. A few of the mourners shivered and Father put his arm about
my shoulders. The vicar quickened his pace, cracking through the
last prayer. The others bowed their heads, but I looked up,
studying the graveyard through the thick black web of my veil.
Beyond the grave, where the Circle of Lebanon sheltered its dead,
there was a figure, or an impression of one, for all I saw was the
dead white of a shirtfront against a tall black form.
I dropped my eyes, telling myself it was a trick of the light, of
the veil, that I had seen no one. But of course I had. When I
raised my eyes again I saw the figure slipping away through the
marble gravestones. No one else had seen him, and he had vanished,
silent as a wraith. I might have imagined him, except for the
question that burned in my mind.
What had brought Nicholas Brisbane to Highgate Cemetery?
Somehow, I knew I should not like the answer at all.
And then again, I have been told
Love wounds with heat, as Death with cold.
“Though I Am Young and Cannot Tell”
After the funeral, everyone repaired to March House where Aunt
Hermia had conspired with Father’s butler, Hoots, to provide
an impressive cold buffet and quite a lot of liquor. My relations
seemed very pleased with both. And so was I. The more they ate and
drank, the less they spoke to me, although I still found myself
repeatedly cornered by well-meaning aunts and faintly lecherous
cousins. The former doled out advice over shrimp-paste sandwiches
while the latter made me dubious proposals of marriage. I thanked
the aunts and rebuffed the cousins, but gently. They were an
intemperate lot, especially with the amount of spirits Aunt Hermia
had offered, and if I offered one of them an insult I had little
doubt there would be a duel in the garden by sunrise.
It was a relief when Father finally fetched me to his study.
“Time for the will,” he said tersely. “You
haven’t accepted your cousin Ferdinand, have
He glanced over my shoulder to where Ferdinand was still tipsily
proposing marriage to a marble statue of Artemis and her stag,
completely unaware of the fact that I had excused myself.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“I am glad to hear it. He is a famous imbecile. They all are.
Marry one of them and I will cut off your allowance.”
“I shouldn’t marry one of them if you doubled
He nodded. “Good girl. I never understood why we Marches
always married our cousins in the first place. Bad breeding
principle, if you ask me. Concentrates the blood, and God knows we
don’t need that.”
That much was true. Father had been the first to marry out of the
March bloodlines and had ten healthy children to show for it, all
only mildly eccentric. Most of our relations who had married each
other had children who were barking mad. He had strongly encouraged
us to marry outside the family, with the result that his
grandchildren were the most conventional Marches for three hundred
In the study, the solicitor, Mr. Teasdale, was busy perusing a
sheaf of papers while my eldest brother, Lord Belmont, viscount, MP
and heir to the family earldom, browsed the bookshelves. He was
fingering a particularly fine edition of Plutarch when Father spied
“It isn’t a lending library,” Father snapped.
“Buy your own.”
Belmont bowed from the neck to acknowledge he heard Father, nodded
once at me, then took a chair near the fire. His manners were
usually impeccable, but he hated being barked at by Father. Mr.
Teasdale put aside his papers and rose. I offered him my
“My lady, please accept my condolences on your bereavement. I
have asked Lord March, as head of the family, and Lord Belmont, as
his heir, to be present while I explain the terms of Sir
I took a seat next to Belmont and Father took the sofa. He snapped
his fingers for his mastiff, Crab, who came lumbering over to lie
at his feet, her head on his knee. Mr. Teasdale opened a morocco
portfolio and extracted a fresh set of papers, these bound with
“I have here the last will and testament of your late
husband, Sir Edward Grey,” he began pompously.
My eyes flickered to Father, who gave an impatient sigh.
“English, man, plain English. We want none of your lawyering
Mr. Teasdale bowed and cleared his throat. “Of course, your
lordship. The disposition of Sir Edward’s estate is as
follows: the baronetcy and the estate of Greymoor in Sussex are
entailed and so devolve to his heir, Simon Grey, now Sir Simon.
There are a few small bequests to servants and charities, fairly
modest sums that I shall disburse in due course. The residue of the
estate, including Grey House and all its
contents—furnishings, artworks and equipages, the farms in
Devon, the mines in Cornwall and Wales, the railway shares, and all
other properties, monies and investments belong to your
I stared at him. I had expected a sizable jointure, that much had
been in the marriage contract. But the house? The money? The
shares? All of these should have rightfully gone with the estate,
I licked my lips. “Mr. Teasdale, when you say all other
He named a sum that made me gasp. The gasp turned into a coughing
fit, and by the time Mr. Teasdale had poured me a small, entirely
medicinal brandy, I was almost recovered.
“That is not possible. Edward was comfortable, wealthy even,
but that much—”
“I understand Sir Edward made some very shrewd investments.
His style of living was comparatively moderate for a gentleman who
moved in society,” Mr. Teasdale began.
“Comparatively moderate? I should say so! Do you know how
little he gave me for pin money?” I was beyond furious.
Edward had never been niggardly with money. Each quarter he had
given me a sum that I had viewed as rather generous. Generous until
I realized he could have easily given me ten times as much and
never missed it.
Father’s hand stilled on Crab’s head. “Do you
mean to say that he kept you short? Why did you not come to
His voice was neutral, but I knew he was angry. He was famous for
his modern views about women. He favored suffrage, and had even
given a rather stirring speech on the subject in the Lords. He made
a point of giving each of his daughters an allowance completely
independent of his sons-in-law to offer at least a measure of
financial emancipation. The very idea that one of his daughters
might have been kept on a short lead would gall him.
I shook my head. “No, not really. My pin money was rather a
lot, in fact. But there were times, when I wanted to travel or buy
something expensive, that I had to ask Edward for the money. I
always felt rather like Marie Antoinette in front of the mob when I
did, all frivolity and extravagance in the face of sober
responsibility. It’s just lowering to know that he could have
thrown that much to a beggar in the street and never missed
Father’s hand began to move on Crab’s ears once more.
She snuffled at his knee, drooling a little. Belmont stirred beside
“Mines in Cornwall. Surely those have played out by
now,” he said to Teasdale.
Mr. Teasdale smiled. “They are still profitable, I assure
you, my lord. Sir
Edward would not have kept them were they not. He was entirely
unsentimental about investments. He kept nothing that did not keep
itself.” He turned to me, his manner brisk. I swear he could
smell the money in the air. “Now, if your ladyship would care
to leave the management of the estate in capable hands, I am sure
that their lordships would be only too happy to make the necessary
“I do not think so,” I said slowly.
Beside me, Belmont stiffened like an offended pointer.
“Don’t be daft, of course you do. You do not know the
first thing about managing an estate of this size. You will want
Father said nothing, but I knew he agreed with me. He would not say
so, not now, because he wanted to see if I would stand my ground
with Belmont. Few people ever did. As the eldest son and heir,
Belmont had been entitled since birth, in every sense of the word.
Mother had not died until he was almost grown, so he had felt the
full force of her far more conventional ideals. It was not until
her death, when the raising of the younger children had been left
to Father and Aunt Hermia, that the experiments had begun. Belmont
had been sent to Eton and Cambridge. The rest of us had been
educated at home by a succession of Radical tutors with highly
unorthodox philosophies. Belmont had never gotten accustomed to
thinking of his sisters or his younger brothers as his equals, and
of course he had the whole of the English legal, judicial and
social systems to back him. He paid lip service to Father’s
Radical leanings, but when the time came for him to run for
Parliament, he had done so as a Tory. Father had refused to speak
to him for nearly four years after that, and their relationship
still bumped along rockily.
I swallowed hard. “Of course I shall want advice, Belmont,
and I know that you are quite well-informed in such matters,”
I began carefully. “But I am an independent lady now. I
should like very much to make my own decisions.”
Belmont muttered something under his breath. I could not hear it,
but I had a strong suspicion Aunt Hermia would not have approved.
In spite of Belmont’s elegant demeanor, he was always the one
who had contributed the most to the family swear box. The box had
been established by Aunt Hermia shortly after she came to live with
us. We had fallen into the habit of cursing after a visit by
Father’s youngest brother, our uncle Troilus, a naval man
with a particularly spicy vocabulary. He had taught us any number
of new and interesting words and Father had made little effort to
curb our fluency, believing that the charm of such words would
dissipate with time. It did not. If anything, we grew worse, and by
the time Aunt Hermia came to live with us, it was not at all
uncommon to hear “damns” and “bloodys”
flying thick and fast at the tea table or over the cricket pitch.
It only took a day for Aunt Hermia to devise the swear box, which
she presented to us at breakfast her second morning at Belmont
Abbey. The rule was that a shilling went into the box every time
one of us cursed, with the proceeds counted up once a year and
shared among the family. For the most part it worked. We learned
that while we could speak more freely in front of Father, Aunt
Hermia’s sensibilities were more refined, and we curbed our
swearing in public almost entirely. Except for Belmont. The year
that he was courting Adelaide we all had a nice seaside holiday at
Bexhill on the proceeds.
Now he turned to Father. “You must speak to her. She cannot
play with such a sum. If she speculates, she could lose everything.
Make her see reason.”
Father’s hand continued to stroke lazily at Crab’s
ears. He shrugged. “She has as much common sense as the rest
of you. If she wishes to manage her own affairs, under the law, she
Belmont turned to Mr. Teasdale, who shrugged. He had been retained
by the family for more than thirty years. He knew better than to
involve himself in a family quarrel. He busied himself with papers
and tapes, keeping his head down and his eyes firmly fixed on the
task at hand.
I put a hand to Belmont’s sleeve. “Monty, I appreciate
your concern. I know that you want what is best for me. But I am
not entirely stupid, you know. I read the same newspapers that you
do. I understand that to purchase a share at a high price and sell
it at a low one is unprofitable. I further understand that railways
give a better return than canals and that gold mines are risky
ventures. Besides,” I finished with a smile, “having
just acquired a fortune, do you think I am so eager to lose
Belmont would not be mollified. He shook off my hand, his face
stony. “You are a fool, Julia. You know less than nothing
about business, and less still about investments. You are not even
thirty years old, and yet you think you know as much as your
“Don’t you mean my betters?” I asked acidly. He
flinched a little. He was always sensitive to criticism that he was
playing the lordling.
“I wash my hands of it,” he said, his voice clipped.
“When you have thrown this money away with both hands and are
leading a pauper’s life, do not come to me for
Father leveled his clear green gaze at Belmont. “No, I
daresay she will come to me if she has need, and I will help her,
as I have always helped all of my children.”
Belmont flushed deeply and I winced. It was unkind of Father to
needle him so. Belmont had called upon Father’s famous
indulgence himself once or twice, but applying for a favor rankled
him twice as deeply as it did the rest of us. He felt that, as the
eldest and the heir, he should be entirely self-sufficient, which
was ludicrous, really. He should and did take his livelihood from
the March estate. He oversaw many of the family holdings on
Father’s behalf, and his future was so deeply entwined with
the future of the family that it was impossible to separate them.
Even his title was on loan, a courtesy title devolved from
Father’s estate at Belmont Abbey. He had nothing to call his
own except dead men’s shoes, and I think the highly Oedipal
flavor of his existence sometimes proved too much for him.
As it did now. His complexion still burnished from his humiliation,
he rose, offered us the most perfunctory of courtesies and took his
leave, closing the door softly behind him. Belmont would never
create a scene, never slam a door. He was too controlled for that,
although I sometimes wondered if a little explosion now and again
mightn’t be just what he needed. He longed so much for
normalcy, for a regular, unremarkable life. We were alike in that
respect, both of us rather desperate to be ignored, to be regarded
as conventional. We had spent a great deal of time and effort
suppressing our inherent strain of wildness. I knew it cost Belmont
deeply. I wondered what it had cost me.
I looked up to find Father smiling down a little at Crab.
“Oh, don’t. It’s dreadful. I did not mean to hurt
his pride—and you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Belmont
cannot abide being made a figure of fun.”
“Then he ought not to provide such good sport,” Father
retorted. He and Mr. Teasdale made a few polite noises at each
other and the solicitor, after several more protestations of his
willingness to be of service, left us. Father gave me a moment to
unbend, but I did not. I kept my gaze fixed upon the window and its
rather unpromising view of the garden. For May, it seemed rather
unenthusiastic, and I wondered if Whittle was attempting sobriety
again. He was a brilliant gardener when inspired by drink, but when
he turned temperate, the garden invariably suffered.
“Oh, don’t be in a pet, Julia. Monty will come round,
he’s just having a bit of a difficult patch just now. I
remember forty—a hard age. It is the age when a man discovers
that he is all that he is ever going to be. Some men are rather
pleased at the discovery. I suspect your brother is
I shrugged. “I suppose I shall have to take your word for
that. But you might be kinder to him, you know. He wants to please
you so badly.”
Father fixed me with a stern look and I broke, smiling.
“Well, all right, that was a bit thick. But I do think he
would like it if you approved of him. It would make life so much
Father waved a hand. “A simple life is a dull life, my pet.
Now, tea? Or something more medicinal, like brandy?”
I shuddered. “Tea, thank you. Brandy always reminds me of the
cough preparations Nanny forced us to drink as
He rang the bell. “That is because it was brandy. Nanny
always said the best remedy for a cough was cherry brandy, taken
That did not surprise me. Nanny had always been one for ladling
dubious remedies down our throats. It was a wonder she never
poisoned one of us.
Hoots appeared, his long mournful face even more dour in honour of
the occasion. Hoots had been with the family for more than
forty-five years and often viewed our tragedies as his own. Father
gave him the order and we waited in comfortable silence for our
refreshment, the quiet broken only by the ticking of the clock and
the occasional contented sigh from Crab.
When Hoots reappeared, laden not only with tea, but sandwiches,
cakes, bread and butter, and a variety of pastries, we both perked
up considerably. So did Crab. She sat politely on her haunches
while I poured. I handed Father a plate with an assortment of
titbits and laid another for Crab with slivered-ham sandwiches. She
ate noisily, her thick tail slapping happily on the carpet. Father
toyed with a scone, then cleared his throat.
“I believe that I owe you an apology, Julia.”
“For what? The tea is quite good. Cook even remembered a dish
of that plum jam I like so well.”
“Not the tea, child.” He paused and put his cup down
carefully, as though weighing his words and the china. “I
ought never to have allowed you to marry Edward. I thought you
could be happy with him.”
I dropped another lump of sugar into my tea and stirred. “I
was. I think. At least as happy as I could have been with anyone
under the circumstances.”
He said nothing, but I could tell from the way he was crumbling his
macaroon he was troubled. I forced a smile. “Really, Father.
You’ve nothing with which to reproach yourself. You told me
at the time that you had doubts. I am the one who
He nodded. “Yes, but I have often thought in the years since
that I should have done more to prevent it.”
A thought struck me then. “Have you talked about it? Within
the family?” I remembered Beatrice, bent stiffly over her
needlework, not meeting my eyes.
“Yes. Your sisters were concerned for you, especially Bee.
The two of you were always so close, I suppose she could sense your
unhappiness. She said you never confided in her. I knew that if you
had not broached the subject to her or to Portia, that you had not
spoken to any of your sisters.”
“No, Nerissa is not an easy confidante. Nor Olivia, for that
matter. Perfection is a chilly companion.”
He grinned in spite of himself. “They can be a bit much, I
suppose. But, child, if you were truly unhappy, you should have
come to us, any of us.”
“To what purpose? I am a March. Divorce would have been out
of the question. I offered to release Edward from his marital
obligations, but he would not hear of it. So why speak of it at
all? Why air our soiled linen for the whole family to
“Because it might have eased your loneliness,” he said
gently. “Did you never speak to Griggs?”
I put my cup down. I had no taste for the tea now. It had gone
bitter in my mouth. “I did. There was nothing to be done. A
bit of a shock, really, coming from a family as prolific as ours.
You would have thought I could have managed at least
Silence fell again, and Father and I both resumed our teacups. It
gave us something to do at least. I offered him another scone and
he fed Crab a bit of seedcake.
“So, do you mean to keep Valerius with you at Grey
House?” he asked finally. I was relieved at the change in
subject, but only just. Val was a very sore point with Father and I
knew I had best tread carefully.
“For a while at least. And the Ghoul, as well. Aunt Hermia is
concerned about the propriety of my sharing a house with Val and
Simon without a proper chaperone.”
Father snorted. “Simon is bedridden. His infirmity alone
should be sufficient chaperone.”
I shrugged. “No matter. Aunt Ursula has actually been rather
helpful. As soon as she realized that Simon was not expected to
live, she settled right in. She reads to him and brings him jellies
from the kitchens. They are quite cozy together.”
“And Val?” he persisted. “How does he fit into
your little menagerie?”
“He comes and goes—goes mostly. I do not see much of
him, but that suits us both. And when he is at home, his is quite
Father’s brows lifted. “Really? You surprise
“Well, he stays in his room and leaves me to myself. He
doesn’t demand to be entertained. I don’t think I could
“Is he still pursuing his studies?”
I chose my words deliberately. Val’s insistence upon studying
medicine had been the source of most of his considerable troubles
with Father. Had he wanted theoretical knowledge, or even a
physician’s license, Father might have approved. But becoming
a surgeon was no gentleman’s wish for his son. It would put
Val beyond the pale socially, and close any number of doors for
“I am not certain. As I said, I see little of
“Hmm. And what is his diagnosis of Simon’s
condition?” The words were laced with sarcasm, but lightly.
Perhaps having Val out of the house was softening his stance.
“Val has not seen him, not medically. Simon is attended by
Doctor Griggs. It was only at Griggs’ insistence that Simon
did not come to the funeral. He would have had himself propped in a
Bath chair, but Griggs was afraid the damp air would be too much
for him. He continues the same. His heart is failing. It will
probably be a matter of months, a year at most, before we bury him
“Has he made his peace with that?”
“I do not know. We have not spoken of it. There will be time
Father nodded and I sipped at my tea. I felt a little better now,
but not much. Edward’s death had left me with vast financial
resources but few personal ones. I had a year of mourning left to
endure, and another loss yet to grieve.
“Your Aunt Hermia will expect a sizable donation to her
refuge when word of your inheritance becomes public.”
I smiled. “She may have it. The refuge is a very worthy