The Lost Chapters
Chapter Two - A Fine Day for a Funeral
It was unfair that the weather had turned out to be so fine on the day she was to bury her husband. The month of April was not terribly reliable when it came to weather, more often than not delivering gloomy skies and chilly temperatures to the residents of London. But today the horizons were bright blue with puffy white clouds floating lazily across and the brilliant sunshine promising warmer than usual temperatures.
It was a day for a picnic, not a funeral, Catherine thought, gazing out the window with longing at the park that lay across the road from Bewleton House as her maid Emma put the finishing touches on her hair, the long blond locks swept up and pinned nearly in anticipation of the veil that she would wear to the funeral service.
She gazed pensively at the pale and tired-looking woman who stared back at her in the looking glass. It was only half past nine in the morning, and already the high collar and long heavy sleeves of her widow’s weeds were stifling, the somber black crepe making her feel like an old crow on a day meant for bluebirds. Black had never suited her fair complexion and this was the deepest, dullest black of them all. Not that it mattered how she looked. As the widow of the deceased, she was expected to be in deep mourning and this dreary dress would make it that much easier for her to play her part—the latest in a long series of roles she’d been assuming for so many years she was sometimes hard-pressed to remember who she really was anymore. From daughter to wife to mother, and now, to widow. She was always donning the mask for a role that someone expected her to play. With one exception, it had always been that way.
She sighed wearily and closed her blue eyes, and for a few moments allowed herself to entertain the notion of entirely abandoning this farce of being the grieving widow, and just running away from it all. Perhaps escaping with John for a day in the countryside. Now that would give the scandal sheets something to write about, not that juicy stories were in scarce supply where she and the Corvedale family was concerned right now. Still, to skip her husband’s funeral? It was a deliciously wicked thought. If only she were brave enough. If only she dared. If only she wasn’t such a miserable coward. She sighed again.
“Do you need anything else my lady?”
Catherine’s eyes sprung open to meet Emma’s concerned gaze in the mirror.
“Perhaps some tea or something to eat? You’ve got a long day ahead of you, ma’am.”
“Thank you Emma, that sounds like just the thing,” Catherine lied. She hadn’t been able to eat much more than a few bites of food since receiving the news about Charles. But the staff was worried about her and she was touched by their consideration.
“I’ll have a tray for you right away, my lady.”
Undoubtedly there was enormous speculation going on in the servant’s hall among the servants about the Earl’s shocking death and the impact it would have on the household, Catherine thought as the maid shut the door closed behind her. While change was inevitable with the advent of a new lord, even a young one such as John, the upheaval that lay ahead would be unprecedented in the history of the family. The staff could have no idea, of course, of just how desperate things were. Unless Catherine could figure out a way to raise an ungodly sum of money in the next few weeks, they would all be out on the streets soon, looking for new situations. It wouldn’t be such a hardship for the younger members of the staff who could adapt quickly to new circumstances. It would be far more difficult for the senior members of the staff, many of whom had spent their entire adult life in service to the Corvedale family. Emma had been just barely 18 when she had come on as Catherine’s maid shortly after her marriage to Charles.
For perhaps the millionth time, Catherine cursed her husband’s reckless disregard for anyone save himself. So many people and so many futures depended on the financial solvency of the Earl of Bewleton and he had selfishly compromised it all.
And now she would be forced to publicly mourn a man who had somehow laid waste to an entire fortune, with no thought given to the security of his wife and son. She would do her duty out of her love for her son, honoring the memory of his father by playing the part of the grieving widow in this elaborate farce of a funeral, never allowing the world to see past the black veil and the serene expression that masked her disdain for Charles Corvedale and the pain that he had caused her.
She had argued strenuously in favor of a small, private memorial for Charles, but had been decisively overruled by Godfrey and other members of the Corvedale family, including Charles’ mother, Josephine, the Dowager Countess of Bewleton, who steadfastly refused to acknowledge that there might be even the smallest hint of scandal associated with her son’s untimely demise.
The family had done what it could to squelch the scandal. The official Court Circular noted the passing of the 9th Earl of Bewleton as a result of a “brain fever,” and all the respectable newspapers dutifully reported the same. That charade was maintained throughout the family as well, much to Catherine’s dismay, and her worries that a large funeral would turn into a public spectacle fell on deaf ears.
“My son was the Earl of Bewleton and he deserves a service appropriate to his status and stature, and I will not for even one moment entertain a suggestion to the contrary do you understand?” her mother-in-law had said fiercely. “The Earls of Bewleton have served the monarch and the nation with distinction for more than three centuries and my son shall have every consideration in recognition of that service. Not that we would expect you to understand the importance of such things, Catherine.”
It was an unnecessary, but not unexpected dig, and Catherine did not react. She had learned long ago not to flinch at the slings and arrows sent her way by her in-laws. Over the years of her marriage, her husband’s family had rarely missed an opportunity to imply that she had been a fortune-hunter who had sought to trap the future earl into matrimony. Given the true circumstances, it would have been laughable if it wasn’t so sordid and dismally tragic.
Were it not for her son, Catherine might have taken some private pleasure in the notoriety raining down upon the Bewleton family. She wasn’t callous enough to wish further distress on a grieving mother, but the Dowager Countess had hardly been a doting parent, and she suspected her mother-in-law’s concern about the funeral was more about concerns for appearance than any emotional attachment for her progeny.
In her worst imaginings, Catherine could not have conjured up the crowds and chaos that showed up for Charles’ funeral. It was clear the scandal had indeed spread rampantly across all strata of London society, drawing curiosity seekers of all ranks and from every walk of life.
One would have thought the lords and ladies of the realm would have had much better things to do with their time than to pay tribute to Charles, Catherine thought as she gazed out the window of the carriage as they arrived at the church where the Corvedale family had worshipped since the reign of old Queen Bess. Hordes of people filled the streets and walkways surrounding the ancient building, some selling newspapers, others flowers, many just there to see the spectacle that went along with the scandalous death of a high-ranking peer of the realm.
“It’s time Mama,” her son said gravely, and her heart ached for the little boy who had been forced so abruptly and painfully into manhood because of his father’s foolish behavior. The 10th Earl of Bewleton he might be, but behind his brave demeanor she saw the distress he was valiantly fighting to hide from the world.
Godfrey was first to alight from the carriage followed by the Dowager Countess and Charles’ two sisters. As John made a move to follow them out the door, she put a brief restraining hand over his and spoke quietly so as not to be overheard by the others. “Today will not be easy for you, but I know your father would be extremely proud of the way you’ve handled yourself in these difficult circumstances. I know that I am.”
He nodded at her, and seeing the brightness of unshed tears in his eyes, she longed to bring Charles Corvedale back from the dead so she could strangle him for the pain he was causing their son.
“Now be a good young man and walk your old and feeble mother into that church,” she said, giving him a tiny smile and seeing a tiny glimmer in return from those brown eyes that reminded her so much of her own father.
“I will always make you proud, I promise,” he said gravely, taking her arm as she stepped down from the carriage.
“I have no doubt, dearest. No doubt at all.”
A scowling Godfrey, aided by a contingent of footmen from the Bewleton House staff, was doing his best to clear a pathway for them towards the steps leading up to St. Paul’s Cathedral, but it was slow going, and the crowd pressed in closely in the hopes of getting glimpse of the family.
“Blimey, it’s the dead man’s widow and the new little earl,” someone cried out. Holding on firmly to her son’s arm, Catherine held her head high and did her best to ignore the chorus of taunts and catcalls that were lobbed in their direction by the heaving crowd, hoping that her example would help to calm her son, whom she sensed was becoming increasingly tense and upset. Damn the Corvedales and the pride and arrogance that had put them all in such a foolish predicament.
“Step aside and make way you rabble,” snarled Godfrey, wielding a cane at anyone blocking his way as they finally entered the building.
The black veil she wore over her face made it even more difficult to see ahead clearly within the dimly lit sanctuary, and as her eyes struggled to adjust from the bright outdoor sunlight, she was grateful that her son was there to lead her down the rows of closely packed pews to a seat at the very front.
The remainder of the day passed in a blur. The service went on for what felt like an eternity, and while Charles’ mother and other family members seemed to gain some measure of comfort from the songs and prayers, she felt a fraud.
The funeral was followed by a luncheon for about 75 family members and close friends back at Bewleton House. It was nearly 8 o’clock in the evening when the guests, including her mother-in-law, had departed much to Catherine’s relief. It had been a long and exhausting day, and she desperately needed to escape the censorious glare of her husband’s family. After making sure that John was settled in, she finally slipped into the privacy of her study for a moment’s peace and to collect her thoughts after what had been a turbulent day.
Resting her head back against the cushion of the chintz-covered armchair, she surveyed the candlelit room she had come to view as her personal sanctuary during the last decade.
She had never loved this house, and when she and Charles had moved in following his father’s death it had felt very much like an over-upholstered prison. But with the passage of time and her mother-in-law’s decision to live with her eldest daughter, Catherine was able to put her own stamp on things. Eventually her feelings for the place had had mellowed, and she had gained an appreciation for its graceful lines now that they were no longer hidden by dark draperies and oppressively large furnishings. She had lived here for much of her adult life and this room in particular had been a place to find solitude and solace from a bitter husband and an empty marriage.
By rights, it was John’s house now, of course. But perhaps not for much longer according to her solicitor. She had a fresh appreciation for this house now that their future here was no longer certain.
“Oh Charles, how could you do this to us?” she whispered. “What am I to do now? How am I to take care of our son?”
An unwelcome voice intruded on her reverie. “Talking to yourself Cousin Catherine?”
Caught up in her thoughts, she had failed to hear Godfrey entering the room. How dare he invade her private sanctum without announcing himself? Could the Corvedale family not allow her even a few minutes peace?
“You startled me, Godfrey. I must have been so deep in thought I didn’t hear your knock.” She didn’t put much effort into disguising her irritation at the interruption.
“Apologies for disturbing you my dear, but there are important matters we need to discuss and arrangements that need to be made.” He didn’t sound apologetic in the least.
She had always known Godfrey believed her unworthy to be the wife of the cousin he worshipped. When Charles had been alive, Godfrey had always been unfailingly polite and respectful. But since his arrival two days ago, wife and five children in tow, she was sensing a change in his attitude and manner. Even the tone in his voice was different, as if she was now subject to his authority somehow. It was almost as if he already knew the terms of the will. Perhaps Charles had confided the details to his cousin when the will was drafted, and Godfrey was now trying to take charge of things.
Or perhaps she was simply overreacting. He had always annoyed her and his mannerisms were grating more roughly than usual against nerves rubbed raw from the week’s events.
Either way, antagonizing Godfrey would serve no good purpose right now. There were better ways to manage things. She would remain calm and, as she had for the duration of her married life, sublimate her feelings behind the facade of the Countess of Bewleton. That did not mean she would allow Godfrey to intimidate her. Like all bullies, he pounced on weakness. She hadn’t been dealt a good hand, but she intended to bluff as if she had everything going in her favor. It was the only way to keep Godfrey in check.
“It has been a long day cousin Godfrey. It would be best if we postponed any further discussions until the morrow after we’ve had a good night sleep and are feeling refreshed,” she said. Her tone was slightly more cordial now.
“Sleep? Since learning the news, I’ve not had a wink of sleep knowing that you and John are now alone without a man to protect and look after you,” Godfrey answered. “But I want you to know you have nothing to worry about, my dear. I am here and will take care of things the way Charles would have wanted.”
He paused, clearly waiting for her to express her appreciation for his support, but she remained silent, staring at him impassively. And for a moment there was an awkward silence. Finally, he looked away and withdrew a pocket watch from his waistcoat, consulting it with a frown.
“No, I’m afraid this cannot wait. The hour grows ever later and I think you would be well-advised to begin overseeing the packing for yourself and John,” Godfrey said.
“Why are we packing? We have no plans to go anywhere to my knowledge,” she said steadily, wondering if he had taken leave of his senses.
“Given the unfortunate circumstances of Charles’ death, I have decided it will be best for you to retire to the countryside for the time being. I’ve spoken with your housekeeper and ordered that bags be packed for both of you in anticipation of an early morning departure tomorrow. We think it would be best if you were as far from London until the gossip mongers have found some new scandal to chew over. I have made arrangements for you to stay with my sister Frances in Aberdeen. I will remain here and look after things. I will make arrangements with the solicitor about the reading of Charles’ will and close up the house and that sort of thing. It will all be looked after. There’s nothing for you to worry your head about.”
“What on earth are you speaking about Godfrey?” Catherine said sharply. “I have no intention of leaving London. This is my home. Yes, John will be returning to school soon, but he is still grieving greatly for his father and I need to be close by him. I am certainly not going to leave and go to Scotland!”
“You’re overset with grief of course and not thinking clearly. While we have done what we could to quell the gossip, the scandal is rocking London right now. The best thing for your son is for him to be in my care. It has taken some persuading on my part as Lucinda is quite unhappy about our association with all of this, but she has generously consented to have John return with us to Lancashire. He will attend school with our boys in Yorkshire, where there will be much less talk. It’s all organized.”
He reached out to pat her hand, but she snatched it away. Despite her resolution to remain calm, she was furious that he was trying to reorganize her life without her knowledge or consent. She willed herself to formulate a civil response in the face of such appalling audacity. Godfrey had always been a pompous ass and always would be. She could not afford to allow for him to gain the upper hand before Charles was even cold in the ground.
“Cousin Godfrey, while I appreciate that you believe that you have our best interests at heart, I will not abandon my son nor go into hiding when I have done nothing wrong,” Catherine said in as calm a tone as she could muster.
“Catherine, while I fully understand how challenging it is for a member of the weaker sex to think rationally at a time like this, you are quite beyond the pale among polite society. If you have any thought for your son’s future and reputation, then you will realize he is best left in the care of those who are not the topic of ridicule and scorn. The young earl is best raised by those whose reputations remain untouched by scandal.”
“With all due respect, I am afraid you are wasting your time and energy on this discussion,” Catherine said, still striving to maintain an even tone and purposefully ignoring the red color that was rising in Godfrey’s face.
“I will say this as plainly as I can—John and I will not be sent into exile for Charles’ misdeeds. Why should we? We are innocent in this matter and all right-thinking people will understand that.”
“You will do as you are told, and that is my final word,” Godfrey said, his voice rising unpleasantly. “Had you been a good wife, none of this would have happened. Charles would have been home with his family, and not forced to seek comfort with women of low morals.”
This was too much even for Catherine to bear.
“Stand down sir, for I have had enough of your vile insults this day,” she said harshly. “You of all people Godfrey Corvedale should know the falseness of your statements. The lies you have perpetuated that have imprisoned me in this farce of a marriage for nearly 15 years. And now you try to tell me how I should behave. How dare you!”
“Silence, do you hear me you impertinent woman. I dare because I am now the master of this family and because Charles appointed me to serve as guardian of his son. You will do as you are told, or I can promise you will regret the consequences.”
“I may be just a woman, but I am still the mistress of this house and the mother of that boy and I will not be threatened by a cowardly cur such as you,” she spat at him. “I would advise that you and your family take leave of this house by daybreak tomorrow, or I shall have you removed forcibly, do you hear me?”
Godfrey drew himself up to his full height and glowered down at her, his face contorted with rage, but she didn’t flinch. She was not the same girl that had been so easily intimidated 15 years ago.
“You ungrateful girl. You were nothing, a worthless little nobody until Charles brought you into this noble family. He could have cast you into the streets, but he was a man of honor. How dare you slur his good name?”
“Leave now or I will have you thrown into the streets,” she said steadily.
“Very well, but mark my words, this is far from over.”
He left the room at last, and the courage that had kept her standing tall in the face of her adversary was suddenly gone. She sank into a chair and buried her face in her hands as the implications of her confrontation with Godfrey cascaded through her mind.
She could endure the loss of the house and all of things that went along with being the Countess of Bewleton. But the one thing she would not be able to bear was losing her son. Without even know the terms of the will, Godfrey was already plotting to send her away. What would he do when he learned the true state of the family fortunes?
But who could she turn to? Her own family would be of little help. Her brother William had gambled away most of the money. He was no better off than she was at the moment.
Her thoughts went back to the solicitor’s words: “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.”
Did she have the courage to throw herself on the mercy of the one person who could help her? And would he help her? For John’s sake, she knew she would have to try. There was only one answer, she knew. She would have to throw herself on the mercy of the one person who could help her. The one man who hated her.
She pulled a white notecard from the top of her desk and began to write.