Catherine felt as though she was balanced precariously on the edge of an abyss. The illusion seemed so real that she could almost feel the rush of cold air racing up the chasm wall to lift the hem of her dress and ruffle her petticoats. At any moment her knees would surely buckle, causing her to tumble, head first, into the darkness swirling far below. A voice in the corner of her mind urged her to do exactly that and escape the reality that was about to shatter her world.
But Catherine was a pragmatic young woman who viewed swooning to avoid unpleasantness as not only impractical, but cowardly. Losing consciousness would not improve her situation. She would be just as destitute upon regaining her senses. Slowly she faced the man who had been speaking to her. “Mr. Whitney, how can this be?” She paused, fixing the bearer of her bad tidings with a look that was both bewildered and angry. “The Hall…the estate—”
“Will all have to be sold.”
Jacob Whitney had been legal counsel to the Davenport family for more years than he cared to remember. Never treating Whitney as anything less than an equal, Catherine’s father had extended the hand of friendship to the struggling young attorney with a family to support. It was a hand that Jacob had clasped eagerly with no regrets.
At this moment he sorely wished that he had embarked on an entirely different career. A cabinetmaker, perhaps. But Jacob had not been blessed with the skill or talent required for such a vocation. An aptitude for the law had been his calling, bringing with it both professional and personal satisfaction. But having to relate unwelcome news was never easy, and when personal feelings were added to the mix, the situation became almost intolerable. Retaining a professional demeanor taxed the limit of Jacob’s skills, and, for the hundredth time that morning, he silently cursed the name of William Davenport.
Although his advice had been sought by his late employer regarding a number of financial transactions, it appeared the counsel he’d given had been ignored. The full extent of William’s fiscal recklessness had remained a secret until his unexpected demise forced everything into the open. And no matter how many times Jacob examined and reexamined the documents placed before him, the result remained the same. The great Davenport fortune was no more. The Hall was mortgaged, the estate bankrupt, and both would have to be sold to satisfy the growing list of creditors.
Jacob silently applauded Catherine for not fainting as the full realization of her predicament became clear. Now he watched as she slowly walked about the perimeter of the room. The only sign of agitation was in the twist of her fingers as she clasped and unclasped her hands. He knew her well enough to know she would have questions, and he had prepared himself to give what answers he could.
Four months had passed since he had last seen her standing as a silent sentinel by her father’s grave. He had been saddened, but not surprised, to find himself offering his condolences to a somber young woman who showed no trace of the child he remembered. Jacob recalled being surprised that, while Catherine had furnished the black scarves and gloves for the six pallbearers and officiating minister, she had failed to include any mourning rings. Now he understood why. How she had found the funds to cover the basic funereal service was beyond him.
Pausing, Catherine stood before one of the large picture windows. Afternoon sun streamed through the glass and bathed her in its light, becoming a pale gold halo that caressed her, making her look almost ethereal. The somber color of her mourning dress did nothing to detract from her beauty; if anything, the dark material only enhanced it. As she turned her head, her hair, tied at the nape of her neck with a single black ribbon, cascaded down her back in a champagne-colored waterfall. Her small oval face, normally clear with dusky pink cheeks, was now pale, and dark circles bruised the delicate skin beneath her eyes. Jacob wondered how long it had been since she last slept through the night.
What on earth had been in William Davenport’s mind as he squandered the fortune that should have been his child’s inheritance? Had he not realized what would happen to his daughter if she were left penniless?
Of course he did, but he was a gambler who thrived on chance and accepted the risks.
No doubt William thought to recoup his financial losses with the next wild proposition that presented itself, or the next turn of a card or roll of the die. But life had dealt him an unexpected blow and Jacob was certain that never, in his wildest schemes, had his patron banked on death snatching him away before he had a chance to repair the damage wrought. Though he could never bring himself to actually speak the words aloud, William did possess a strong, abiding affection for his daughter.
Jacob sighed. Catherine ought to have been married by now, but an ever-shrinking dowry meant the number of potential suitors was also reduced. Matrimony was a business that brought with it certain expectations, and the heavier the bridal purse, the better the prospects. Even with her extraordinary beauty, Jacob knew it was doubtful Catherine would find a husband worthy of her. News traveled fast in their small corner of the world, and bad news had the swiftest feet of all. It was not unthinkable to imagine every family of note in three counties was already aware of her impecunious state.
Catherine, finished with her contemplations, left her post at the window and took a seat across the table from him. “Has everything gone?” she asked, a frown creasing her brow at Jacob’s confirmation.
“The amount of monies owed is…substantial.”
Catherine simply stared at him, her face settling into an impassive mask. She could tell by the way he was shuffling the papers before him there was more he wanted to say. Forming the words, however, seemed problematic. “What else, Mr. Whitney?” She laid her hands on the polished tabletop. They were small, with long slender fingers. Delicate, feminine hands that still managed to convey a sense of strength.
“You are not entirely penniless, Catherine. Your grandmother left you a sum that was originally intended to be part of your dowry, but she did stipulate that should the need arise, it could be released to you. I think, under the circumstances…” His voice trailed off.
Under normal circumstances a sum of one hundred pounds would be cause for celebration; provided she was cautious with her spending, it could keep her modestly for some time. She sighed and mentally pulled up the seed of hopeful expectation before it could take root. “Please use what you must to settle the most pressing of our obligations in the village,” she instructed Jacob, “and then divide whatever is left amongst the servants.”
“The servants?” He stared at her, flabbergasted. “I’m not sure you heard me, my dear. The sum is one hundred pounds.”
“Yes, I know.” She gave him a tight smile. “I have no need of a dowry, Mr. Whitney, but there are others who could, who should, benefit from this unexpected good fortune.” The look she gave said she would brook no argument from him. If he didn’t want her to use the money, then he should not have told her about it. “Tell me, have you found a buyer for the property?”
He shook his head.
“Then would it not make sense,” she continued, “to allow those who serve The Hall to remain until you do? Or at least until they are able to secure another position?”
“It has been well over a year since any of the servants received any wages, and I would like to rectify that situation. But we still must eat, Mr. Whitney, and I cannot expect Mr. Dowd to extend my account indefinitely.”
Jacob was not surprised by her words or her reasoning. He was, however, astonished to hear that the butcher had extended her credit. The dour-faced man was not known for his generosity, which meant he thought highly of Catherine. Settling her debts with the village was only right and proper, but, despite his initial impulse to deny it, Jacob also saw the sense in her request. It was reasonable to assume whoever bought The Hall would welcome help that was already familiar with the house and grounds. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder how many others, finding themselves in a similar position to Catherine’s, would have secured as much of a future for themselves as the money would have provided instead of spending it on others.
“Of course I will see to it as you wish,” he told her.
“Good. Is there anything else?”
“Miss Catherine, forgive my bluntness, but have you given any thought to your future?”
Her future? She’d thought of nothing else since her father’s death turned her world upside down. “With no dowry, I expect no offers for my hand,” she told him bluntly. “Perhaps I could find useful employment administering to the needs of the sick or infirm. I possess a great deal of skill in changing soiled linens, and emptying chamber pots, and of course my personal experience in dealing with those who drink themselves senseless cannot be overlooked. It surely must be an advantage.” This last was added with a bitterness that said Catherine expected the lowliest kitchen maid to weather the repercussions of her father’s foolishness far better than she. She sighed and smiled wearily at the man sitting across from her. “Forgive me, Mr. Whitney. Grief has given my tongue an unnaturally sharp edge. I will of course consider any suggestion you care to present.”
Perhaps it was simply tiredness, or guilt at her outburst, but whatever the reason, Jacob detected a thread of fear in her voice. He prayed that what he was about to reveal would dispel her fears, and offer her hope for the future. “Have you ever heard the name Phillip Davenport?” he asked.
* * * *
Safe within the confines of his modest carriage, Jacob allowed himself to relax as much as his troubled mind would permit. He rested his head against the buttoned leather back and closed his eyes, reliving the past few hours. After carefully examining his actions, Jacob concluded he had behaved in a manner that was both professional and appropriate. The meeting with Catherine had been conducted with far fewer complications than he had anticipated, although this was mainly due to an odd lack of curiosity on her part.
Any surprise she had shown at her impoverished situation was more a programmed reaction than real shock, but he had assumed she would pepper him with inquiries regarding the existence of Phillip Davenport, a recently discovered cousin. That she remained silent, requesting only the most rudimentary details, concerned him. Could she sense that he wasn’t being entirely truthful when he had mentioned Phillip’s name? That he knew more than he was alluding to? Even as a child Catherine had been intuitive, and there was no reason to suppose her perceptiveness had been diminished by the passage of time.
But, concerned though he might be, Jacob felt a certain relief that she had not asked him more about Phillip. At least he could state with all honesty he had not lied to her, although it was possible one day he might regret not being more forthright. Still he did not want to add to her burden by issuing warnings that could prove unnecessary. And besides, where else was she to go? Who would offer her shelter if not her recently rediscovered relative? Perhaps he should have insisted she take the hundred pounds for herself, especially as Jacob’s correspondence with his colleague regarding Phillip Davenport had not been as reassuring as the attorney might have wished.
While expressing a similar surprise at the discovery of a blood relative, Phillip had dismissed the familial bond out of hand and was completely unreceptive to offering shelter to the penniless girl. Jacob’s colleague reported, confidentially, that there was a certain smugness of attitude when the young man learned of Catherine’s misfortune. Phillip Davenport, it seemed, was the type of man who took a perverse delight in the misery of others. It might have been different had there been an offer of compensation for his trouble.
Was it any surprise that Jacob had kept this from Catherine?
And then, as if the man’s reluctance was not enough, there was the troubling matter of Phillip’s character. Jacob was not quite the naïve country attorney some mistook him for. He had initiated inquiries into the young man’s background, but all his investigation exposed was a slew of uncorroborated rumors. The city was filled with gossipmongers who, for the right price, would lie convincingly about the Holy Virgin herself. Scandal was not limited to street corners. The finest salons could damage a reputation with equal impunity.
Rumor, no matter how much it twisted Jacob’s gut, was still rumor. He dealt with facts, not innuendo. So he decided, albeit grudgingly, to give Phillip the benefit of the doubt. He told himself that all Catherine’s potential savior was guilty of was choosing to associate with people of questionable character. Nothing more. As his carriage rumbled on, Jacob soothed his worries with the notion he had served Catherine’s best interests by not sharing his suspicions with her. Perhaps if he repeated it often enough, he might even believe it himself.
In the distance thunder rumbled. A summer storm was brewing and Jacob had some miles yet to travel. He hoped to be safe inside his office when the tempest broke.