Ashby, Hampshire, England
Belle French’s cheeks puffed out as she held her breath and eased herself down on the thick tree limb. There was no doubt in her mind that the tree would hold her weight; she had perched on this gnarled branch hundreds of times over the whole of her youth. She had long since mastered the trick of not snagging her cotton frock on the teeth of the bark or staining it with sticky sap.
The wind blustered through, rustling the leaves and causing her balance to be off. She laid a volume of Cowper in her lap and raised her arms to steady herself, like a bird spreading its wings. When the breeze died down, she was able to exhale. The large maple was one of her favorite places. Ideal for reading… and daydreaming.
The sloping valley that stretched out before her was yellowed from a summer’s sun and the air smelled musky of smoke from her home’s leaky chimney. A hazy fog filled the air, rising off the grass, a clear sign that autumn was around the corner.
No sooner had she cracked open her Mother’s book of beloved poetry, did the sound of heavy booted footsteps on nimble twigs approach. The familiar clopping reminded her of obnoxious horse hooves.
“What a lovely bird you make. Much like one of those little pigeons.” Gaston Harcourt was standing on the roots of the tree, one hand on its side.
His handsome, dusky head was turned upwards as he gazed at her. The morning light glinted off his dark blue eyes. As his neck was craned back, his Adam’s Apple bulged. He flashed a toothy grin. He was striking and he knew it too. Whenever he could use his charm or his looks to his benefit, he would. Nothing repelled her more than an overabundance of arrogance…except for a man who was consciously obsessive of his good looks.
She closed the book. “Mr. Harcourt, are you here to see my Father?” she asked, knowing fully well what the answer would be. For the last few months he had been setting store by her.
“I came to see you, actually. Belle, I am in love with you. I’ve loved you from the moment I first clamped eyes on you.” Gaston produced a little box from his pocket and flicked it open. A tiny diamond ring twinkled at her. “Will you marry me?”
Belle swallowed. Please not now! What could she say? For as long as she had known him, she had never encouraged him. Oh, she did show him kindness once or twice, but she meant nothing by it. Yet somehow he got it into his thick head that she would make him a dutiful little wife.
“With such ardent words, who would read novels?” An unfamiliar sneering voice broke in.
She shifted and saw a slight man standing a few feet off, leaning on a cane. His narrow face was pinched into disgust. “Is Maurice French home? I have a matter of business to discuss with him.”
Though he was a stranger to her, she was grateful for his interruption, no matter how rude it was. She could use him as an excuse to pardon herself and escape Gaston’s ridiculous attempts at love making.
“My father is inside. I shall take you to him.” She said.
Tucking the volume of Cowper under one arm, Belle twisted and began her descent from the tree. A pair of hands spanned her waist and assisted her to her feet. Assuming it to be Gaston, she turned around to thank him and came nose to nose with their guest.
“Thank you.” She primly nodded to the man, averting her gaze until he set her on the ground and released her. For propriety’s sake, he was much too close.
The man shrugged. “It’s no matter.”
Gaston was off to the side, his arms folded over his massive chest. “What about my proposal?” His wide mouth was drawn into a frown.
Belle felt the other man’s judging eyes on her and wished that one or both gentlemen would disappear. “Really, can we not discuss this later?”
Gaston reached out to touch her elbow. “But I don’t mind that you don’t have a dowry. That is of little consequence. I shall never mention it again when we are married. Please, Belle, don’t be embarrassed-”
“Aye, don’t be ashamed that your father can’t bribe him to take you off his hands. Mr. French is indebted to me.” The other man interrupted again, his Scottish brogue weighing down his sharp words. He took out his pocket watch, and after glancing at it, he clicked it shut and stuck it back in his vest pocket. “Can you finish this tête-à-tête another time? Preferably when I’m not present to watch.”
Belle felt her face heat up. She didn’t know this man from Adam. The last thing she wanted to do was air her dirty laundry before him. There was something underhanded about this gentleman and if Father did owe him a debt, this man might result to extortion.
She quirked her finger, gesturing him to follow. “Come this way.”
She couldn’t help but notice that as he walked beside her, that he was relying upon his cane for assistance. Some gentlemen used walking sticks as an accessory of sort and as a sign of prestige. However, this man’s left leg didn’t appear to be working properly. He had a limp.
He glared when he saw that she was staring.
To disguise her unease, and to ascertain the truth, Belle asked, “Is it true that my father is in your debt? Or were you just being spiteful?”
“I never lie, if I can help it, dearie. My apologies though.” The corners of his mouth upturned, his hand over his heart. “Will you accept your suitor?”
“Not that it is any of your concern, but if I wanted to accept his suit, your sudden arrival wouldn’t have stopped me.” Belle tilted her head and narrowed her eyes, as though to let him know that he was being snubbed.
Leading him through the narrow hallway and to the room on the left, Belle paused in the doorway. “Father, you have a visitor.” She nodded coldly to the unknown Scotsman. In a friendlier tone, she asked her Father, “Would you like some tea?”
Father glanced up. When his aged eyes rested on the man, he gulped. He shook his head, offering her a congenial smile. “Not now, dear. Thank you. Please close the door on your way out.”
As the guest strode into the little library, she brushed past him and quietly shut the door.
Belle knew that she was too old for listening in, but was unable to resist. She knelt down and pressed her ear to the keyhole. If that man was right and her father did owe him a substantial amount, then she wanted to hear the exact details of it.
The second the door clicked shut, Adam sat on one of the flattened cushioned chairs and crossed his bad knee over his right. He hooked the crook of his cane on the arm of the chair. As he waited for Maurice French to initiate the conversation, he was briefly distracted by the flowery scent the young woman left behind. Lavender. He first smelled it when he helped her down from that tree. What an unusual girl; after all, ladies did not climb trees.
A dove. That was the bird that Gaston Harcourt fool should have compared her to. That would have been far more fitting than a dimwitted pigeon.
Belle, as her father called her, couldn’t have known who he was or what her father owed him, or else she wouldn’t have talked back to him. No one crossed him, man or woman. Others had the good sense to keep their distance. Though she had been peeved, it was the first time in a long time that someone upheld their end of a conversation with him. It was rather invigorating.
The other man mashed his lips together, growing whiter by the minute.
Adam sighed. “Do you have my money?”
He shook his large, round head, causing his jowls to jiggle. “W-well, my crops have not done well this year. We have had too much rain and the water choked them and they drowned. I have not made a profit for some years now. But I plan-”
“I don’t care about your plans.” Adam gritted his teeth. “I care about results.”
“Please, Mr. Gold, you don’t understand. My circumstances…Daughters are not inexpensive-”
“Then perhaps you should have drowned some of them at birth.”
Maurice drew in a wounded gasp. He could have sworn he heard a fainter, more feminine gasp from the hallway.
Adam sniggered. He often got a rise out of making people squirm. There was nothing more amusing.
Maurice French was the sort of man who thought he could shift the blame of his failures onto others. If he had to use his daughters as an excuse, then so be it. It didn’t matter that he was the one who racked up the debts; he wouldn’t take responsibility for his actions. In the last three years, Maurice had borrowed a little over five thousand pounds for various repairs and likely squandered it. He had yet to pay a fourth of it back.
“I have been more than patient. Either give what is due me or I will take your land. It is as simple as that. Understand?” Adam said.
The land that Maurice possessed was fine and fertile and could turn a profit, provided it was in capable hands. Its current owner did as poorly at farming as he did at managing his finances. To Adam’s satisfaction, it was all worth far above five thousand. But that was the price Maurice French would have to pay for using his land as collateral.
Maurice rested his right hand on a nearby Bible and held his left in midair. “Yes, of course. As God as my witness-”
“Let’s leave God out of this.” Adam stood and grabbed his cane. The only thing that irritated him more than measly excuses was fools who used God when it pleased them. “I am sure the Almighty has more important things to do than act as your witness. You have one more week.”
He crossed over to the door, dragging his leg behind him on the dull, worn carpet. He flung it open, in time to see the girl in the golden dress hasten down the hallway and disappear into another room. Once more he was bombarded by the cologne she was wearing. What was her name? Ah, Belle, of course! She must have been listening in. Sly little minx.
Adam headed out the front door thinking it was better that she learn now that her father was a failure as a human being than be surprised by it later on. In his experience, fathers rarely proved reliable. His own was a waste of perfectly good skin. In his opinion, Maurice French wasn’t turning out much better.
Belle parted the lacey white curtains and from the sitting room window, she watched the mysterious figure hobble down the moistened pathway to his carriage. What he had said was true; they did owe him a substantial amount of money, far beyond what could ever be repaid. Father confirmed that he had taken out some kind of loan. But the situation couldn’t be as abominable as the man had painted it. There must be a silver lining in all of this.
Her Father never borrowed money. Under her Mother’s wise influence, if the family didn’t have the funds, they did without. Since her Mother’s untimely demise, Father allowed his grief to rule him and made rash choices. They must be in a very bad fix if he was desperate enough to go to some obscure Scottish gentleman for assistance. Especially the one with such a cold demeanor.
Her older sisters, Eloise and Patricia flounced in not long after, arms linked together, the skirts fluttering.
Patricia wrinkled her petite nose. “Hateful man. What could Father have been thinking, borrowing money from him?”
“I know! Father made a deal with the devil himself. Have you heard? They say the Beast once owned people. He dabbled in the slave trade.” Eloise tisked her tongue. “He is evil to the core.”
The Beast. The phrase alone made her shudder.
Belle had heard tales of such a man; no one could live near Ashby and avoid hearing of him. What short amount of time she had spent in his presence, though she was not studying him, she had to admit that he was not the hideous creature that she had conjured in her lively imagination. While not ugly, he certainly lived up to his pet name, the Beast. Reports of his wickedness had been spread far and wide, even beyond the boundaries of Hampshire. The rumor of Mr. Gold owning slaves may have been true at one time, but no one had in the county had seen any black men or women on his property. Therefore, that one had to be nothing more than a myth. Unless he owned plantations based in India.
Well, he couldn’t be all bad. He had to know deep down that her father had no money and that it was a hopeless cause. If he didn’t, surely he wouldn’t hold that against them. Sometimes people acted badly because that was what was expected of them. Perhaps if given the opportunity, Mr. Gold would behave in a more Christian and gentleman-like manner.
Belle sighed. “I can’t believe that. There must be good in him somewhere. Remember what Mother use to say?” She sent them an encouraging look. However neither took the hint and recited the platitude. “‘There is a little good in everyone. Sometimes you just need a pick and a shovel to dig down deep and find it.’”
Eloise patted her cheek. “Sweet Belle, not even Mother’s Christian charity could apply to the Beast.”
Her sisters turned back to the window, exchanging numerous tidbits of what they heard about Mr. Gold. As much as she loved her sisters, they never used their minds or their time productively. Their attention was often fixated on finding a suitable husband or fitting their bonnets in the latest fashions or acquiring a new muslin. There were moments when they seemed to share one brain… one very feeble, insignificant brain. Long ago, her two older sisters had banded together, leaving her out in the cold. Luckily she had Mother and clung to the dear woman’s skirts at an early age and then became her constant companion.
The door opened and Father went straight to his preferred chair by the fireplace. He sunk down into its flimsy cushion. Most of their furniture and decorations of their home was far beyond shabby. From age and constant use, what they possessed was in a pitiful state. There had to be gypsies out there who had better. However most of the pieces had been selected by her beloved Mother and others had been embroidered by her too. Such things were too near to Belle’s heart that she refused to have to them replaced, no matter how atrocious they looked.
Her sisters ceased their whispering. They wouldn’t dare ask Father what occurred during his private meeting, nor would he volunteer such information to them. Though they were fully grown and of marriageable age, they were to be seen and not heard.
Being the youngest daughter, she had the least right to inquire into his business affairs. Yet it would be unfair for him to bear the burden alone. He no longer had a wife to lean upon or to glean counsel from. Belle did what she could to fill in for her Mother’s absence. She must offer up some kind of wisdom, for his sake at least. He couldn’t be left to face this alone.
“Father,” Belle knelt at his side and placed her hand on his fleshy forearm. “Is it really as bad as what Mr. Gold made it out to be?”
The rims of Father’s eyes were pink. Whilst only a farmer, he acted the part of a proper Englishman. Therefore he was never one to publically show emotion. It must be grave, indeed, if he had shed any tears in his library and then appeared before them in such a manner.
“Every bit and then some.” He dipped his head, unable to meet her gaze. “I can no longer hide the unfortunate truth from you girls. Our crops have failed the last three years in a row and your mother’s illness and funeral-”
“Don’t speak of it if it pains you so.” Eloise said.
Patricia took a step forward, her hands clasped. “Perhaps borrowing money from someone else to pay off our current debt is the answer!”
“Nonsense! No one around here has that kind of money.” Eloise argued. “Mr. Gold knows that and has us backed into a corner.”
“Well, Belle already has successfully set her cap at Gaston Harcourt, lucky girl. You and I could find husbands and then Father won’t have to worry about us.” Patricia clapped her hands gleefully.
Eloise squealed her enthusiasm.
Belle covered one of her ears, unable believe what she was hearing. After losing their mother such a short time ago and experience deep, agonizing pain, she couldn’t comprehend how her sisters could be eager to leave home. Not only that, they were willing to abandon their last living parent. What would become of their poor Father? Her sisters would hardly welcome him to live with them and their hypothetical husbands. If he did lose the house and the farm, he would have no place to turn to.
“We cannot abandon Father now; we are the ones who contributed to the problem. We should persuade Mr. Gold that we are trustworthy. The three of us can find suitable occupations and then we can reimburse him.” She insisted, knowing that her ideas would be met with wild opposition. “That is the most logical and responsible thing to do.”
“Us? Work? You cannot be serious.” Eloise’s peach lips were agape.
Belle rose to her full height. “I am. We could be governesses or do fine sewing or take in laundry, or become companions to nice older ladies. Those are all very appropriate occupations. There would be very little scandal at all.” She continued, her fortitude strengthening. “Our closest friends and acquaintances would more than understand. This is what Mother would want us to do.”
“Oh, Father!” Patricia wailed and was inconsolable. Eloise dissolved into tears and there was no doubt that the cook could hear their sniveling whimpers all the way in the kitchen.
Ladies did not work. While she and her sisters would hardly be categorized as genteel ladies, since they were the daughters of a mere farmer, other than a few simple chores, they had never lifted a finger. Her Father made their lives quite comfortable. He had enough proper pride that he couldn’t bear the thought of seeing them labor. It was only after her Mother’s death that Belle came to the realization that the life they had always known would not last forever. Father and Mother’s union only produced three daughters. Without a direct heir, some distant cousin would inherit the land…if Mr. Gold didn’t lay claim to it first. With Father three score years old and no farmhands to be had, their home and the land had begun to fall down around them.
Dear Father. Belle sighed. Thinning white tufts of hair arched across one side of his crown to the other. His skin was beginning to sag and he was a fraction paler than he was the year before. His expanding abdomen was like that of a woman expecting a child, round and swollen. He had gotten old and I hadn’t noticed.
Lord have mercy, she had been so engrossed in her own agony that she neglected to notice his. Mourning had aged him prematurely and there would be no reversing the affects. Now that his helpmate was gone, he would spend the rest of his life grieving for her.
“Now, now. There is no need for tears.” Father cooed the two older girls, as if they were mere babes. Yet they did not hear his words and continued to senselessly squall. If only he had a shiny object in his hand, he might have been able to distract them. “Belle, those are very excellent ideas, but I’m afraid my debt is too great. We must prepare ourselves for the worst. Our home and land shall be lost to us forever.”
Belle’s heart began to palpitate. Perspiration prickled her hair line. “Surely something can be done.”
“None of it matters. As long as we are together, we can take a smaller home and live there quite happily.” Father managed a smile, albeit a weak one, solely for their benefit. “Now, let us read the Scriptures. That ought to give us comfort.”
Eloise had calmed down enough to turn to where they left off. Her sister’s clear voice faded as Belle’s mind wandered. Though Father seemed without hope, there must be something that he overlooked. He was not a man accustomed to keeping accounts, therefore perhaps he didn’t fully appreciate the loaned he had worked out.
God in Heaven, we cannot lose our home! She quietly begged the Lord to rescue them, or at least tell her what needed to be done.
For a brief moment, Belle considered accepting Gaston Harcourt’s proposal but quickly thought better of it. She had known him since her girlhood and for a long while she thought of him as nothing more than an old family friend. Well, for a very short period she envisioned him as the hero in a few of her books and possibly a potential husband, but Mother’s death changed all of her romantic sensibilities. Why, they all knew him so well that they occasionally disregarded society’s rules and referred to him by his Christian name. Yet despite his connection to her family, she wasn’t in love with him.
If she ever did marry, it would have to be to someone she loved. There would be no exceptions.