At Bowerly Hall – 11

I KNOW Mrs Bell,” Sarah said. “You’d do well to keep out of her way. Her husband is a nasty piece of work. He’s well known in the village for his hasty fists after a few drinks. My father has visited several times over the years to talk to the man after some altercation or other.”

A shiver ran up my spine. It was horrible to think that the woman who had hated me on sight had a violent husband.

“Do you know her cousin, Mrs Smith? She was Mary’s nanny before I arrived.”

Sarah shook her head.

“Is that Aggie Smith? I do recollect my father talking about her. She was often at the Bells’ cottage, he said. I never met her. Why do you ask?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.

I didn’t know Sarah well enough to share with her my suspicions of Mrs Smith’s unkindness to Mary.

“What of Lord Charles? Have you seen much of him?” Sarah asked curiously.

I could hardly tell her of my encounter with him late at night. I hadn’t really come to any conclusions about it. In fact, if I thought about the three times in total that I’d met him so far, he hadn’t on any of these occasions put himself out to be pleasant.

“It’s so sad that his wife died,” Sarah went on. “Miss Mary was just a tiny baby. He was very much in love with Lady Catherine and it was such a shock to all of us when she caught a fever and died. I remember the baby was whisked away to London to her mother’s family for a while for fear she’d get ill.

“We never saw the viscount after that. Not for years. They said he’d gone abroad to grieve for his wife. He’s only been back in the country since last spring.”

“How tragic for all of them. Imagine how Lady Anne must have felt. She lost her son, her daughter-in-law and her grandchild all in one swoop.”

“I never thought of it like that,” Sarah agreed. “It was awful for them. Miss Mary came back once the threat of fever had gone. So I suppose Lady Anne at least had some comfort in that.”

“What was she like? Lady Catherine, I mean?” I couldn’t help asking.

“She was beautiful. She had glorious blonde curls and big brown eyes. They say she was the belle of all the balls the year she came out. She took one look at Viscount Bowerly and she’d have no other. She pursued him until he fell head over heels in love with her and he brought her back to Bowerly.”

“Which is quite a contrast to the lively social bustle of London,” I remarked.

“Yes, but she took to it like the proverbial duck to water,” Sarah said eagerly. “She loved her gardens and she brought six gardeners back from Paris to tend to the grounds. The flower gardens were gorgeous. It’s a pity you couldn’t have seen the place back then.”

I was beginning to regret the turn of our conversation that I had wrought. What had I wanted to hear? That Charles’s wife was ugly, or that he didn’t love her? That she’d made him unhappy at Bowerly?

What on earth was the matter with me? I hid my disappointment and castigated myself for uncharitable thoughts.

“Was he always so short-tempered? Or did he change after his wife’s death?”

“Short-tempered? Is he really? I’m afraid I don’t know him very well. We hardly move in the same social circles. He and Lady Anne do come to the village festival but apart from that we don’t mix.”

At that moment came the sound of hearty male voices and next the two men arrived in the room bringing a blast of cold air with them. Sarah rose to greet them and turned then to me with a smile.

“Amelia, let me introduce my father and Mr James Smith.”

“Don’t get up, my dear,” the vicar said kindly, clasping my hand with his own large, warm one. “I’m very glad to find that Sarah has company.”

I liked Sarah’s father immediately. He was a large man with tufts of grey hair and a ruddy complexion.

My attention switched then to his companion who politely shook my hand. This was Sarah’s young man. Or perhaps not quite yet. He was well-built, not tall but stocky, and although not handsome to my eye, I could see why Sarah would describe him as gentle and kind. His features were mild and pleasant.

The vicar was shaking his head.

“It’s a terrible business. It really is.”

“What has happened, Father?”

“Another burglary. This time at Fonteyne Abbey. They’ve lost gold candlesticks, linen and family porcelain. It’s not as if they have too much of great value. I wonder why the blackguard chose them.”

“Perhaps because they were an easy target,” James Smith said. “The old lady lives there quite alone except for the servants, does she not?”

I saw that there was more to Sarah’s James than at first met the eye. A keen intelligence lay behind his mild manner.

“Indeed, I should have thought of that myself. How very true.”

“Which makes the perpetrator a coward as well as evil!” I said indignantly.

Although I had never met the old lady at the abbey, I sympathised with the horrible event she’d been through. How awful to be so vulnerable to a thief.

“It’s frightening.” Sarah shivered.

At once, James moved a little closer to her as if he would protect her.

“You must have no fear, Sarah,” he said earnestly. “Your father and I will let no harm come to you or the vicarage.”

“Especially as we have no riches for a thief to steal,” her father added with a laugh.

It broke the sombre mood that had surrounded us.

Tracey Steel

Having worked on a number of magazines over the years, Tracey has found her perfect place on The Friend as she’s obsessed with reading and never goes anywhere without a book! She reads all the PF stories with a mug of tea close by and usually a bit of strong cheese too!