The state of the Earl of Ellesmere was surrounded by green fields and ancient trees, deep in the middle of Cumberland, near the Scottish glens. It was an imponent construction, of Jacobean architecture, with its columns and archers, parapets and pillars over red stone. The pebbles whispered complaints under the tires of the Jeep approaching the entrance, where the household was waiting in an orderly line.
“Now, Margareth. I’m expecting the best behavior while visiting Ellesmere, are we understood?” Said Lady Clarice Bedwyn, with a floral Hermès handkerchief over her white hair, her lips compressed together in worry. “The last thing we need is another scandal…”
Lady Margareth sighed by her grandmother side, as she watched the large state coming in her view.
“Nana, we are in 2019. It’s not so serious.”
Unless it was. Peggy Bedwyn committed the same mistake that destroyed the lives of many girls around the world: she fell in love. He was a nice boy she met while buying some books in one of the bookshops inside the campus. He was wearing a hoodie with the Oxford University logo and had a strong smell of cigarettes and paper.
They started to talk, while she held to the Shakespeare collection in her arms, his strong cockney accent so charming, his green eyes staring at her. He would laugh of her jokes and pass his hands through his hair, or what was left of it: it was so short she could see the rosy skin of his scalp under the light blond hair.
He was a DPhil in Medieval and Modern Languages and was named Liam. Liam Jones.
Suddenly she saw him typing his number in her phone and saying that he was waiting for her call, as he packed his comic and a lighter. She stared for a long, long time, watching he leave, unable to walk towards the register, who repeated called for the next customer.
It was not difficult to fall in love for Liam Jones, DPhil. He liked soccer and to have a pint every Friday at the pub. He would call her lovey and play with her brown hair, his smile showing under his irises. He would steal kisses by her apartment entrance and whisper lovely things in her ears. It was really easy.
It was so easy that she didn’t complained when he begged to sleep in her apartment, next to her warm body. They have been dating for nearly six months, it was the right thing to do, it was what she wanted.
And she let him go up, undress her like no one ever did and kiss her shivering body. She felt him entering her without even asking if she was ready, what made her really pissed. It lasted three whole minutes and when she opened her eyes again, he was already gone.
A week later, her naked body was all over the tabloids, announcing that the daughter of Lord Piers Bedwyn, Marquis of Granville, have had sex.
It took some months to handle the reporters and photographers, a lot of bribing to avoid more news and photos of coming out. The last step was to take a sabbatical from her undergrad major and stay with Nana Bedwyn, far away at Cumberland, so that everybody in London could forget about Lady Margareth, the wanton.
“I’m sure Jamie will not blink an eye.” Murmured Peggy, thinking about her best friend, Lord James Ludovic Ransom, Viscount Ashness, son of the Earl.
“Lord James is a fine boy but he is not a saint to forgive your indiscretions, Margareth. Now, we will greet all of them and go up. I talked to Lady Diana and she said that, at night, they will offer a little rendez-vousfor the guests who are arriving today. I’m begging you: be kind, be gracious and, most of all, avoid any subject revolving around Liam Jones.”
She sighed, watching the blonde figure of Lady Diana Ransom wave at them, followed by the red-haired Lord Ian. They were a lovely couple, that liked to smile and host parties. Lady Diana and Lord Ian were historians, that met in the Cambridge Library by chance, trying to take the same book from the shelf. It was a simpler time, when you could not just order books on the internet or google something that you needed to know. They needed the book and, logically, they decided to share it.
Years later, they were sharing a bed and three children as well.
“Welcome, Peggy! We’ve missed you dearly!” Said Lady Diana, while two girls of nineteen and fifteen approached the car. “Come say hello to Peggy, Jane! Do you remember her, Suzie dear?”
The Ransom sisters greeted her like a dear sister, hugging and whispering secrets, taking her to the main entrance, the beagles at their heels, sniffing and howling to the stranger that came to their home.
“Where is Jamie?” Asked Peggy, inside the turmoil.
“Oh, you know our brother, Peggs. He is in the attic, as usual. You can find him there.” Said Jane, her slanted blue eyes shining in wickedness.
Before Peggy could answer, she felt the bony hand of her grandmother under her elbow.
“Maybe later, Margareth. We have to refresh ourselves first.”
Lord William Clarence Henry George Ransom watched his state with pain in his heart. Since he discovered who really was his father, he felt like he didn’t deserve to be Earl, to enter the old house built in red stone, to sleep in the master chamber or to eat inside the halls. After all, he was the bastard son of a jacobite traitor.
Dear god, he thought, placing his tricorne hat in a dusty table, as he walked the empty halls of the manor, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. His steps echoed in the rooms and the stale air entered his nostrils in waves. He hadn’t warned the servants to open the house for him, dusting the surfaces, cleaning the floors and opening the windows. The stables were empty, the kitchens were quiet and the house seemed like a skeleton of itself.
There was no one to greet him, to open the door for him and take his coat, asking if he wanted a tea. He hadn’t even warned auntie Minnie that he was back in England. Good, old Lady Minerva, that suffered so much the last years. She has seen her older son die during the war and her younger almost die as well. She has seen her only daughter marrying a quaker doctor, working among the revolutionary troops, in constant danger.
She didn’t know that, perhaps, Benjamin was alive. Or that he married in the colonies and had a son. That Henry might marry Mercy Woodcock, the African American woman that nursed him to life. She only had poor Adam, now called Viscount Grey, holding her hand and taking care of the old lady, while waiting for the war to be over and his place as the heir to the dukedom to be consolidated.
William unbuttoned his red uniform, walking towards the sitting room and seating over the sheet covering the sofa. He had asked for a leave in the army, to think about his new circumstances. His condition of a bastard, most of all. The fact that his whole family lied to him until now. The fact that he had a sister, a nephew and a niece.
He had a stepmother.
Dear god, he thought again.
Placing a hand over his face, William walked toward the fireplace, watching his face reflected in the huge mirror over it, his slanted blue eyes shining, remembering him of James Fraser.
No, that’s enough of self-pity, though William, walking towards the door and taking his tricorne again. His horse was at the same place he left it, munching some overgrown grass near the entrance, its hair the same color of the stones of Ellesmere Park. Jumping in the stallion, he kicked it to a full gallop. If he was going to stay alone with his thoughts in an old and abandoned mansion, he needed, at least, some food.
He ran through the woods, the warm English weather over his skin, the birds chirping in the trees and the squirrels running around. He skipped some hedges in a skillful manner, the same way he had learned with mac. His father.
He crisped his lips and felt the irritation in his throat, realizing that James Alexander Malcom Mackenzie Fraser was always present in his short life, staining his childhood memories with shame and regret, his blue eyes a constant reminder of what he has lost and what he has gained the last year.
He took a longer trail, passing through some old ruins by the end of the way. His mind kept racing in what he needed to do. He had only two months of leave in the country, before coming back to the war.
And to the Fraser’s.
He needed to check Fanny’s welfare, after all.
Now, Willie, what’s your plan, then?
First of all, he needed to sell the state. Ellesmere Park and Helwater, with the tenants and everything along, chairs, tables, candlesticks and beds. If he could, he would even sell the paintings of his so-called father and his mother, adorning the family private halls.
The title was a little more difficult. He couldn’t sell it or send it to anyone, as it was donned by the king so many years ago. The title of Earl was within his family since the middle ages, a present of William, the Conqueror, if he was not mistaken. He couldn’t just go to the bakery and say to old Ramsay that he was, for now on, Earl of Ellesmere. Or Viscount Ashness. Or Baron Derwent.
The only way to be free from the title was to never be married. Or, if he was to be married, he could not have children. If he died without anyone to inherit the earldom, it would pass to a long distant cousin, that would sit in his place at the House of Lords and complain on why the old Earl died without maintaining any of his ancestral lands.
He was, now, near to the old ruins of the Monastery, feeling that strange tingling in his skin, as he usually felt near there. The servants would say that the Monastery was cursed and a bad place to be. Back in the middle ages, when the druids were still roaming in the island, the place used to be a small circle of stones, used for the old people to celebrate the seasons. When the Catholics entered the land, they tried to take these places down, breaking the stones and building churches over the soil, blessing what once was unholy.
With King Henry, the monastery was forgotten and the nature started to invade its premises, nightshades and bungles growing between the stones covered in moss, the yard filled with yellow stars-of-bethlehem. He passed slowly with his horse, touching the ivy growing in the walls of the old place, feeling the sun in his skin and forgetting for a while his troubles.
For once, since he started to visit the monastery as a child, he welcomed the tingliness in his nerves not as a bad sign or the presence of something evil.
He welcomed them as good omens of new things to come, of a bright new future opening to himself.
Jamie was not on the rendez-vous organized by his mother. All of them were spread at the courtyard, watching the stars, listening to some music in the stereo. Jane talked in hushed tones with her mother, while Peggy was laying in a blanket by her grandmother side, listening to the old lady talk in a very distinct manner with old Lady Louisa, mother of the Earl.
“We are going up, Peggy.” Said Jane in a low voice, her eyes tired and her voice drowsy with sleep. “Are you coming with us?”
“I was waiting for Jamie. I thought he was coming downstairs to greet us.” Margareth complained.
“Oh dear, you know my brother. Since his vacation started last week, he’s been trapped inside the attic, making discoveries of his own, things about the old earl of Ellesmere and his mysterious wife, or something like that. Who knows?” She sighed, kissing her friend in the cheek and greeting the guests good night.
“Nana…” She started to say to her grandmother, a shy smile in her lips and eyes full of earning.
“I don’t think that Lord James desires to see any of us, Margareth.” Said the Old Lady, with crisped lips. “If he did, he would have joined us in this wonderful rendez-vous.”
Peggy furrowed her brow, knowing that her grandmother was only saying that due to the events of last December. Liam Jones would always be roaming her mind and her life, a ghost controlling her freedom.
“Oh, Clarice.” Said Lady Louisa, her bright blue eyes staring at the girl. “Let the young be young. Peggy is such a dear and I’m sure that my grandson didn’t come to visit us just because he’s too interested in his new discoveries. Now, my dear, you may go. It’s my 70th birthday and my wish is for you to have fun. Your grandmother and I have plenty to talk about.”
Peggy smiled, radiant in her twenty years, finally free to visit her dear friend. She got up in a hurry, hearing the ladies laughing at her excitement, while she ran inside the manor, her feet echoing in the wood. She got down to the kitchens, surprising the staff that was having supper, at last, as she opened the fridge and took two canned gin and tonic in her hands. With the same sense of urgency, she climbed all the stairs, short of breath and flushed, opening the door with her elbow, seeing the red-haired man sitting in front of some paintings, placed with care on the floor.
“Have you forgot your manners, Jamie?” Said Peggy, opening one can and hearing the sparkling sound produced. The man turned and she saw his blue eyes shining, as his hands came forward to take the drink.
His hair was a deep auburn, curled like an angel’s hair. He had a strong nose that in anyone could have been a weird feature, but gave James Ransom an heir of authority that fitted him very well. Over it, his reading glasses sat framing his features, making him look intelligent and elegant. He had a smirk in his face and he motioned her to come forward.
“Milady, you greet me with your presence. I was intending to fetch you, anyway.” She sat by his side, her eyes turned to the painting in front of them. “May I present you to Lord William Ransom, Earl of Ellesmere?”
“Oh, Jamie. You have the same eyes!” She said surprised, watching the blue eyes of the handsome man staring at her, like a lion waiting for the prey. He had a strong jaw, broad and nice, with high cheeks and bright chestnut hair. He was a tall man, as she could see by the painting, with broad shoulders that would be the death of any lady on those days. The strong nose that Jamie had was, probably, a feature incorporated into the family back in the next few centuries.
“I bet his wife was very jealous of him. Do you have any information of her?” She whispered, contouring the figure of the earl with her digits.
“That’s the interesting part: no one knew her full name. She was mentioned over and over again as Lady William Ransom or the Countess of Ellesmere. However, after spending my last few days of vacation in this attic, I have the pleasure to introduce you to Lady Margareth Bedwyn Ransom.” He said in a flourished voice, handing her an old piece of paper, a marriage certificate, containing the proof of union between Lady Margareth and Lord William.
“Oh, Jaime! This is amazing! She may be a distant cousin of mine! The name runs in the family. Look! They were so young! She was twenty and he was in the verge of turning twenty-two… Do you have a picture of her?” She asked softly, fingers crossing the yellowish certificate.
“I haven’t found anything yet. But I will remain here until I find this painting for you, Peggs.” He said, with a sad smile in his eyes.
“We were relatives, Jamie.” She murmured to him, eyes going up, fixed in the handsome face of Lord William. “Our families were bound together by matrimony.”
And for a minute, Peggy thought that Jamie was going to say something, taking her free hand in his, eyes shining under the fluorescent lights. However, he just smirked at her, a mysterious and sad smile, filled with secrets.