The Lost Chapters
Chapter One - The Untimely Demise of the Earl of Bewleton
During his lifetime, the Earl of Bewleton had been full of surprises, and in his wife’s view they were never the good kind. When he was shot dead in the bed of his mistress and the resulting scandal meant she could no longer step a foot out of her house without people gathering and pointing, she had thought things were about as bad as they could get.
But as Catherine Lindsay Corvedale, Countess of Bewleton listened to Mr. Heath, the family’s longtime solicitor, go over the details of the last will and testament and estate of Charles Arthur Landis Corvedale, Earl of Bewleton, she understood finally that her late husband had saved the worst surprise of all to the last.
“I am so sorry to be the bearer of further bad news in a time of such profound grief, my lady,” the solicitor said, motioning to the stack of legal papers that were spread across the desk in her study at Bewleton House in London.
She was dressed from head-to-toe in black, the only color appropriate for a woman in mourning, even if the widow herself was not exactly prostrate with despair over her loss. The room where they sat was bright and elegant, a stark contrast to the damp and overcast spring day. The walls were covered in a pale yellow silk painted with richly colored flowers and birds from exotic places that were far away from the bleak English weather. Over the very long, cold years of her marriage, she had often wished she could fly away with those birds to a place that was permanently warm, where one’s security and happiness weren’t dependent on the whims of cruel and selfish men.
Did such a place exist anywhere? She wondered. Certainly not here, where her husband’s lifeless body lay in a room just two doors down the hall from this one, and a huge contingent of his family members would shortly be descending upon her household to attend the funeral.
She glanced at the delicate porcelain clock on the edge of her desk. Her son John was due home in less than an hour. He was returning from school for the burial services, accompanied by her brother William, who had faced the sad task of informing his 14-year old nephew of his father’s death.
Her attention returned to the elderly man sitting across from her. From the expression on his face, she had known Mr. Heath did not come bearing good news. But it was only when he began to explain the details of their financial situation did she have an inkling of the dire state of her affairs.
“Unfortunately, your late husband had incurred numerous debts over the years, which occasionally required the raising of cash through the liquidation of certain assets.”
Yes, she thought, it was true that constant gambling, drinking and whoring tended to be expensive. But to Charles, such activities had been far more entertaining than looking after his estates, taking care of his family, and managing his finances.
“In addition, the late earl suffered some unexpected business reversals during the last panic. To keep the family fiscally solvent, he took out loans using the various properties as collateral.”
The kindly solicitor was clearly not happy about the news he was delivering and she braced herself for what was to come next. She would get through this as she had every other trial of her life. For John’s sake, if for nothing else.
“Please continue Mr. Heath.”
“Unfortunately, with the exception of this house, which is entailed, all of the properties of your late husband’s estate are fully mortgaged, including the family seat in Northhampshire.” The solicitor paused and looked up at her with a fatherly expression of concern and worry on his face.
“Under the terms set forth in the liens, these debts must be paid in full upon the death of the mortgagee – that would be your husband of course – or the properties are automatically surrendered to the lien-holder. The terms of the loans are quite explicit. Full repayment is required within the next 30 days.”
“I’m not entirely clear what you’re saying, Mr. Heath. Can’t we just pay off the loans by liquidating other assets in the estate?”
“I am sorry Lady Bewleton, but there are no other assets. The estate is for all intents and purposes bankrupt.”
“Bankrupt?” She repeated faintly. “But my husband was heir to one of the richest men in the realm. There must be some mistake. Assets somewhere that you have not accounted for yet.” The solicitor just shook his head regretfully.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “Without full repayment by the 12th of next month, all of the mortgaged properties will be forfeited to the lender.”
Her tired brain struggled to make sense of what she was hearing. “But you did say my son still legally owns this house. We can live here at least.”
“I wish with all my heart it were that simple, Lady Bewleton,” the solicitor said. “But a house of this size in central London carries with it enormous expenses. The staff salaries are hundreds of pounds per month.
Without the income from the mortgage properties, there won’t be enough funds to cover even your most basic costs for more than a few weeks—a month at the most. As it is entailed, it cannot be sold unfortunately.”
“Exactly how much money are we talking about?” she asked, fighting to keep calm despite the sense of panic that was building up inside her.
“As of today, the amount required to satisfy the debts against the estate totals nearly…,” he said a number and she gasped. It was a fortune—more than the entire worth of many of England’s most prominent families. There was no one from whom she could obtain such a vast sum of money. Certainly not from her family. Her circumstances were worse than she could have possibly imagined.
“I am so sorry, my lady,” Mr. Heath was saying again. Had her own misery not been so complete, she might have felt sorry for the solicitor who was obviously distressed at having to bring her so much unhappy news. If she hadn’t been a countess, he likely would have patted her hand in a comforting manner, but social constraints ruled out such familiarity.
“Mr. Heath, you’ll pardon me, but I am finding this very difficult to take in. My husband had his faults, but he wasn’t a complete fool. How was he planning to repay these loans?”
“Lord Bewleton did have several investments that he inherited upon his maternal grandmother’s passing three years ago that had the potential for strong returns over the long term. And the properties themselves do generate an income. With a little more time, he was expecting to use those funds to repay the loans taken against what are now your son’s holdings.”
Left unspoken was the fact that Charles had not expected to be murdered by a jealous husband just shy of his 40th birthday, leaving his wife and young son to pick up the pieces of his madly irresponsible existence.
She swallowed hard, pushing back both the lump in her throat and the hysterical laughter that was threatening to bubble up.
“There is one bit of good news I can offer you,” Mr. Heath was saying. “Fortunately, Lord Bewleton did put aside enough money to provide for his own funeral and burial. I am sure that will come as a great comfort to you.”
At her hopeful look, he shook his head in clear anticipation of her next question.
“I’m sorry my lady, but according to the will, those funds cannot be used for any other purpose.”
Of course, Charles had looked after himself, she thought bitterly. That came as no surprise. Had that not always been the way of things?
“As to the guardianship of your son,” once again the solicitor paused and gave her yet another sympathetic look, which she now recognized as a signal to brace herself for more unpleasant news.
“Go on,” she said steadily, even as her heart hammered wildly in her chest. Despite all of Charles’ debaucheries, he had cared for John and had been a reasonably decent father for a man of his rank. It was one of the few things she respected him for, although it had not been enough for her to make peace with the mess he had made of their lives.
“Your husband has named his first cousin, Sir Godfrey Corvedale, as the boy’s legal guardian. But your son is to remain in your household and under your care and supervision unless his legal guardian determines that you are unable to adequately provide for him, at which point Sir Godfrey could assume both legal and physical custody.”
Of course, it made sense that Charles had selected Godfrey as guardian, Catherine thought. He was John’s godfather and Charles’ closest male relative on the Corvedale side of the family. If their son had not been born, Godfrey would have become the Earl of Bewleton himself upon Charles’ death. But more to the point, Godfrey had been Charles’ faithful lackey since childhood, the very one whose complicity in her husband’s lies had sealed her fate those many years ago.
“As I mentioned earlier, you husband clearly intended for the young earl to be raised by you, his devoted and loving mother, in your home. But if you were to pass away before your son reaches his majority or are unable to provide a stable home, he will go live with Sir Godfrey and his wife in Hampshire until he reaches adulthood. The will is very clear on that point.”
The idea of her son going to live with Godfrey and Lucinda was unthinkable. She closed her eyes briefly at the untenable thought. They were the very last people in the world she wanted to play any part in raising her only child.
The solicitor leaned back in the wingback chair where he was sitting and gave her a final, woeful look. “Do you have any questions, my lady?”
She did actually. Such as how she was going to raise £500,000 in 30 days. It was a stupefying sum of money—more than most people earned in many lifetimes. And then there was the question of how to provide a safe and stable home for a boy whose father had recklessly mortgaged away all their property and income. Once the details of the will became known and Godfrey discovered she had no financial resources, he would take John away from her in an instant. She supposed he would be forced to offer her a place to stay as well, out of pity, but she was under no illusions. Life with the Corvedales as a poor relation was something she could not bear to contemplate.
“I realize things look very grave for you right now, my lady,” Mr. Heath said as he stood up from the chair and began gathering his papers. “It is possible, given the connection between your families, that the holder of your mortgages might consider giving you additional time to repay the debts. That is about the only thing I can suggest for you in the way of a solution at the moment.”
The solicitor’s comment gave her sudden pause. “Who holds the mortgages then Mr. Heath?”
“Ah, yes, you wouldn’t know that of course.” More papers were shuffled and the eyeglasses were adjusted yet again. “The liens are held by the Marquess of Grantham. Your husband’s first cousin on his mother’s side I do believe.”
Yes indeed. Even in death, Charles was still full of surprises. Never the good kind.