Part One: A Study in Courtship
The library of New Saughton, like most of the favoured rooms of the house, looked out over the expansive lawns first laid out by Sir John Clerk and down towards the canal that cut through the property. The late autumnal sunshine shone weakly through the large windows, catching motes of dust and making them glint like old gold, highlighting the luxury of the room beyond. The pale light picked out the gleaming wood of the large desk, the rich leather of the chair behind it, the fine wool carpet laid out before the fireplace. All the soft furnishings were as fresh and bright as a new penny, in stark contrast to the faded man who stood motionless at the window. His scarlet uniform showing the pale yellow-green facings of the 66th Regiment was precise as a pin, but the unforgiving daylight highlighted every careful mend and threadbare patch, the whole looking out of place among the opulent surroundings.
The man looked just as out of place in the room as his clothes, although he shouldn't have because he'd been born in this very house thirty-some years earlier. His face was tired and worn beyond his years, aged by illness and responsibility carried too early on young shoulders, and glints of silver shone among the short-clipped hairs on his head as well as in the stubble along his cheek. His eyes looked out, not on the fading greenery of the Scottish landscape but on the dry and dusty rocks of a desolate island in the south Atlantic seas, on the acrid and indolent heat of a Calcutta market, on the green grandeur of the Pyrenees. He had the look of a man who was not sure if he was dreaming or awake, and half-afraid to learn which it was.
John Watson, 9th Earl of Saughton, had arrived at the ancestral home of the Watsons earlier that day, just as the family was sitting down to dinner. His sister-in-law, the widowed Countess of Saughton, had been equal parts relieved to see him and aghast at his travel-stained clothes. She'd first cast herself upon his chest, adding her copious tears to the road-dust clinging to his coat, then fainted dead-away at his feet and had to be laid out on the parlour sofa. Devoted application of fan and smelling salts by her abigail had brought her around, only to have her cry over her "sainted husband" and "dear angelic babies", and to moan over what would become of her innocent children once they'd been turned into the street by the new heir. John had thought it prudent to withdraw from the scene.
He'd been shown to the master bedroom by a new butler, grander than the one he'd known growing up and supported by four footmen. The room in which he had found himself was not the familiar apartments of his father, but had clearly been redone in recent years for the sapphire blue coverlet and hangings had little wear. After sleeping in rough and ready camps for the past ten years, the opulence of his surroundings made John uncomfortable and he had only lingered long enough to wash off the dust of the road and change into his spare uniform before quitting the room. He had attempted an exploration of the house but hadn't gotten much further than the library when fatigue from his bad leg had overwhelmed him, making him take refuge there.
There was a brisk knock and almost before he could call out the door was precipitously opened as his sister made her impetuous way into the room. "Lord, but that woman should have taken to the stage! She would have rivalled Mrs. Siddons's performances," Harriet announced as she shut the door behind her. She strode over to the sideboard and poured a glass of whiskey, carrying it over to him. "Drink this; you'll feel more the thing afterwards."
"I doubt it," John said drily, then tossed back the contents of the glass. The taste of real whiskey made his eyes burn for a moment and he coughed. "Lord, Harry! Give some warning next time!"
She grinned. "Been a great deal too long since you had honest Scots whiskey, eh, Johnny?"
"Much too long." He held out the glass. "Give us another."
Harry carried the glass back to the sideboard and poured him another tot, hesitated for a moment, then put the stopper back in and poured a glass of sherry for herself. John raised a questioning eyebrow and she flushed, her cheeks rivalling her strawberry-blond hair for colour. "Clara," she said shortly. "Gotten as stern as a Presbyterian lately, and won't there be hell to pay if she catches me being free with the whiskey?" She settled in one of the chairs before the fireplace, crossed her trousered legs, then looked up at him frankly. "How bad is it, Johnny?"
"Bad," he said baldly. "Uncle Alexander didn't go into specifics, just generalities, but..." He sat back in his chair, staring down into the smoky amber liquid. "The estates are encumbered, the bank accounts overdrawn, and tradesmen will be dunning us at the door." He looked around the room and his voice hardened. "Given the state I've seen of the house and the stables, I am hardly surprised. James and his lady appear to have been wasting the ready in every way possible."
"Lord, yes, for years!" Harry replied. "Don't know how they've been able to do it; Clara and I have been having a time making a go of things, what with the war costs and the Corn Laws."
"Why didn't you say something?"
Harry snorted. "You know James; he patted my head and told me to run along and not worry, exactly as if I was Georgie's age." The Earl of Dalmahoy shook her head at the folly of their oldest brother, her eyes sharply studying the man across from her. It had been nearly five years since she'd seen him off to Nepal and Ceylon, but she thought he seemed aged more than that. "If I'd known it would all fall on your shoulders, I would have told you, Johnny. What are you going to do?"
John rubbed his forehead wearily, then tossed back the rest of his drink and set the glass on the table. "I've got to visit Uncle Alex, find out how bad things are, and talk to Wimmering about the estate. The stable is full, half a dozen hunters plus coach-horses, all eating their heads of, and then there are the racing stables. They'll have to be sent to Tattersall's and some of the staff turned off. The London house will most likely need to be sold, too."
"Good riddance to the monstrosity," Harry said, toasting its departure with the rest of her sherry, then set her glass down beside John's. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees, and looked John square in the face. "Will you sell out?"
"I don't know," John replied. "If I have to sell Saughton - "
"Sell Saughton!" Harry exclaimed, horrified. "Surely not!"
"It might come to that. There's Janet's portion to be considered, and the children to provide for. If I have to sell the estate, keeping my position with the regiment might be my only home, not to mention income." A brief thought occurred to him that as the Earl of Saughton he would have been a suitable candidate for Mary Morstan's hand. But the heir to a ruined estate with not even a home to bring her to was even a worse match than a regimental surgeon.
"Well, I hope it won't come to that," Harry said, looking around the room wistfully. "I like knowing the place is here. Like having you close, too. I like you best of all our family."
"Not that that's saying much," she added reflexively. "There's only you and me and Charlie, after all. Not counting cousins and aunts and uncles, although I don't like most of them above half. And Uncle Alex frankly terrifies me." She picked up her empty glass, playing with it absently. "Didn't much care for James, if truth be told. And I can't abide Janet at all, with all her posing. It sounds horrid, but I think she's secretly glad that James and little George died."
"It's true!" she said defensively. "She plays at being the devoted mother but what she really likes is playing the martyr and everyone telling her how brave and devoted she is."
"I trust you don't say this in public!"
"Do you think me a gudgeon? I haven't even said it to Clara, but I know you can keep my confidences. I wouldn't trust Janet, not as far as I could throw her." She looked over at him frankly. "Are you going to offer for Mary?"
Harry was the only one to whom he had confessed his feelings for the young woman he'd fallen in love with in India, and now he regretted that. He got up to pour another glass so that she couldn't see his face as he said lightly, "I don't see how I can. Or that General Morstan would allow me her hand if I was to offer."
"Well, that's beastly unfair!" Harry said roundly. "First you have to settle James's debts, and now you must give up Mary! Everything falls on you, when none of it is your fault. Janet thinks that she's the one to be pitied but that's a fudge."
John slammed his glass down on the sideboard and whirled around, glaring at her. "I don't want anyone's pity!"
"And that's why I like you better," Harry said frankly, not at all alarmed by his flair of temper.
John slumped back against the sideboard, rubbing his temple fretfully. "Sorry, Harry; I shouldn't snap at you. It's been a long journey, and I'm not looking forward to being under the same roof as our sister-in-law for any length of time."
"Well, there's a solution to that," Harry said with a grin. "We can finish her off with a subtle poison in her tea so she can join her beloved husband and sainted children."
"Harry!" John couldn't help laughing at that, though, and Harry joined him.
At that inopportune moment the door opened to admit Lady Saughton, trailing yards of crape and black lace, leaning on the arm of Clara Watson-Dalrymple who gave Harriet a disapproving look. Janet paused on the threshold, saying in a faint voice, "Laughing? With James and dear little George barely cold in the ground, I am astounded that anyone at Saughton is able to find amusement."
John bit his tongue to keep from saying that it had been nearly four months since their deaths and stepped forward to assist Janet to the sofa. Janet sank down onto it with the grace that came from considerable practice; Clara arranged a pillow under her sister-in-law's head and a shawl around her shoulders, then retired to the other side of the fireplace after a quick look at her wife. John took a few minutes while the Countess was made comfortable to cast an assessing look at his sister-in-law; time had faded the widow's beauty but even the peevish expression on her face couldn't hide the fact that she was still a handsome woman.
"I half expected to find you closeted with Wimmering," Janet said in an aggrieved tone. "That man has been in and out of the house as if he owned it. I have never liked him, and so I told James many times. Nothing will convince me that our misfortunes aren't due to his mismanagement of your poor brother's affairs."
"That's utter rot!" Harry snapped and seemed inclined to say more but Clara trod on her foot.
"May we know how matters stand, John?" Clara asked. "It can't be worse than our own conjectures."
"Nothing would come as a shock to me," Lady Saughton said in oppressive tones. "After all that I have been through, I am inured to disaster. I only wish to know when I will find myself living on the streets."
"It won't come to that," John assured her. "The Dower House is vouched-safe to you, and I am certain that your jointure is secure as well."
"That place!" Janet said disdainfully. "It is horribly outdated and faded, and lord knows I won't be able to refurbish it."
"But it's in a fashionable part of town," Clara said encouragingly. "You'll have so many visitors, and you know how that cheers you. And you'll have the children with you, which will be such a comfort."
"My darling babes, the only joy left in my life!" Janet raised a small black-laced handkerchief to her eyes, dabbing at the corners of her eyes.
John wondered if she even remembered the names or ages of her three remaining children, then reproached himself for his uncharitable thoughts. To make amends, he poured a glass of sherry and gave it to her. "There is no need for an immediate move," he said. "Not unless this house makes you unhappy."
Janet raised tear-bright eyes to him and took his hand, squeezing it gratefully. "You are very good to me, Brother. And of course you won't want to have this house without a mistress - the servants never look after a place properly without someone to keep an eye on them."
John doubted that Janet had ever bestirred herself about household matters but he diplomatically refrained from saying so. Harry was not so politic and she said baldly, "Until Saughton is sold, at any rate."
"Must Saughton be sold?" Clara asked, horrified, then noted that Janet appeared to be suffering a Spasm. Her vinaigrette was waved under her nose and a dose of hartshorne poured out, after which she was able to lift her head weakly from the pillow. "Thank you, dear Clara!" she uttered in failing tones. "Do not regard me! It was the agitation of having dreadful tidings broken in such a way - " She paused and glared at Harriet in a way that had nothing of the invalid in it, then turned a tremulous smile to John. "You have been a stranger to your home for such a long time; you can have no idea what Saughton means to us." She blew her little nose delicately with her handkerchief and said, mournfully, "James would have understood how wrenching a blow this is to me! Always so considerate, partaking of all my sentiments!"
John exchanged a look with Harriet, both aware that James had been an intensely selfish person, generous to others only when it was of no cost to himself. But again, John said nothing out loud and the look Clara gave Harry made her subside in her chair with a scowl. John sighed and set himself to the onerous task of soothing his sister-in-law's feelings.
The only bright spot was that shortly after the tea tray was removed, Janet declared her nerves shattered and tottered off to bed. John saw Harry and Clara down to their carriage, then made his weary way up the stairs to his own bed. As he blew out his candle and settled down under the unfamiliar silk sheets, he bleakly thought that, as bad as today had been, tomorrow would be infinitely worse.