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Delsie

Delsie by Joan Smith
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Lord deVigne orchestrated Delsie’s marriage to his widowed brother-in-law so that the man could die in peace. So schoolteacher Delsie inherited Grayshott’s house, his fortune and his daughter—as well as some very incompetent servants. And there were some very strange goings-on about her new home. Lord deVigne thought he could order Delsie’s life—and she was having none of it! Regency Romance by Joan Smith; originally published by Fawcett Coventry

Belgrave House; January 1982
ISBN 9781610847193
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Title: Delsie
Author: Joan Smith
 
Excerpt

The day that was to mark the beginning of the change in Delsie Sommer’s life began like any other. The sun did not shine more brightly; she awoke with no tingling feeling of excitement, no presentiment at all that her life was to be turned topsy-turvy, that danger and excitement and romance were awaiting her around the corner.

No, she awoke with a slight nagging headache at seven o’clock, dragged herself out of bed to light the fire and put on water for tea, dressed hurriedly in her well-worn navy bombazine gown, and twisted her dark hair into its required knot, like a spinster. She gulped her tea, bread, and cheese in the austere but tidy apartment on the third floor of Miss Frisk’s genteel rooming house. On went the winter pelisse and dark bonnet even if it wasn’t quite winter yet, because the sky was gray and there was sure to be rain before she got home. Silently down the stairs to the second storey—back up to get the notebooks she invariably forgot. It was some unconscious rejection of the role of schoolmistress, she supposed, that accounted for this habitual forgetting of the students’ books. She wished she could set fire to them all and throw Mr. Umpton, the principal, on top of the blaze.

She smiled as she imagined the toes of his boots smoldering, smoking, finally bursting into flames. Would that, at last, make it warm enough for him? His habitual complaint, “My, but it’s cold in here,” as he rubbed his hands together every morning, went through her head like a song as she hurried along the shaded lane to St. Mary’s Parish School. My, but it was getting cold, though! A real winter nip in the air, and here it was just beginning November.

Whose stupid idea had it been to place the village school half a mile beyond the edge of the village? She supposed they got the lot two pounds cheaper, and never mind that all the students and two teachers had to walk in wind and snow and rain. Or was it Mr. Umpton’s idea, that the parents not see what an inordinate fraction of the day his pupils “took a breath of air” outside when they should be doing their work?

“What odds?” he said one day to Delsie, and had regretted a dozen times since. “A little reading, a little writing, a few sums, and the kings and queens of England, and there you have more knowledge than most of their heads can hold, or will ever use.” The fact of the matter was, it was about as much knowledge as he had to impart, yet he insisted on taking the older class himself—for the prestige of it, she supposed. The students knew those bare facts and a few more before Mr. Umpton got hold of them. “Consolidation, there’s the thing,” he told her, when she pointed out to him that his class had already been through the Second Reader. “Let ‘em consolidate what little they’ve learned. Better to know a little bit well than to have a glimmering of a lot that’s above their heads.”

The handful of bright ones who grew tired of consolidating either left in despair or came to Delsie after classes to push on to the Third Reader and start fractions. But there weren’t really many who cared for learning. Most of them were there because the school was free and their parents made them go, and of course it was easier than picking stones from the fields for the roads, or helping their fathers on the farms. Subtle hints dropped to Mr. Umpton that she would be happy to exchange classes with him—”privately, just between the two of us. There is no need to tell the Board” —were met with a jealous eye and a harsh tongue.

“If you’re not happy at St. Mary’s, Miss Sommers, it can be arranged for you to be replaced,” he said. And Mr. Umpton was the very one to arrange it, the brother-in-law of the director.

“Oh, no, I am quite happy,” she said, and had not raised the question again. She needed the job.

Life had been hard for Delsie. Born aboard a ship returning from the West Indies, she felt she had been adrift ever since. Her mother was from a branch of a noble tree, but on a rather lower tip of it, amounting almost to a twig. When she married Papa, a younger son of a genteel family, they had gone off to the West Indies with barely enough money between them to get there and set up house. Papa had magnificent ideas. Had he started with ten thousand pounds, he might possibly have made a million. But, starting with one thousand, he had overreached himself and lost what he had to his creditors. Ambergris was the villain that had done him in, something that came from whales, Mama said, and was used in making perfume. Her mother’s family had bailed them out and brought them back to England. It was on that journey that Delsie had been born. Papa had next tried his hand at being a solicitor, and failed less gloriously than with ambergris. Again money was wangled from Mama’s family, for horse breeding in Ireland this time, and again it was a failure. Papa had died in Ireland, and it was back home to England again, but the family’s patience was wearing thin. One hundred and fifty pounds a year for the widow was all they could see their way clear to give. It was barely enough to live on.

The family possessions were sold off bit by bit—first silver, then portraits, finally the pearls and a pair of rings, to give Delsie the lady’s education her mama insisted on—four years at a seminary in Bath as a day student, while living in rented rooms with Mama. All this sacrifice was to make Delsie eligible to contract a good match, but how was anything of the sort possible without a penny of dowry?

“We have better blood than any of them, if it comes to that!” Mama used to say, clutching a worn shawl about her shoulders—but a cashmere shawl, once good—to keep out the drafts. “My great uncle Foster is a marquess—the Marquess of Strothingham. If I applied to him we should not be living as we are.”

“Perhaps you should do so, Mama,” Delsie suggested, more than once.

“Yes, and perhaps I shall one of these days,” was the invariable answer. But she never did, being as proud as a peacock. It was Papa who had groveled to the relatives. Later Delsie read that the Marquess of Strothingham had died at seventy-eight of a heart attack, leaving a vastly encumbered estate to some nephew. Delsie hadn’t the heart to tell her mother. Uncle Foster was a symbol; she had come to realize that over the years. The name of the heir was mentioned casually in another conversation, and Mama had never heard of him.

When she was eighteen, her mother too had died. It was a peaceful passing—a year’s gradual subsiding into listlessness, a month in bed, eating next to nothing. The local doctor said she had fluid in the liver. It was the most common complaint in town, the one accused in all deaths whose cause the man did not know.

Miss Sommers found herself alone in the world, with Mama’s allowance cut off, no known family (for they never visited the relations, nor was any acknowledgment of the death notice returned), and nowhere to go. She had her lady’s education, so painfully acquired, with no pianoforte to play, no dining room in which to serve dinners, no friend to whom she might speak her French, not even a set of water colors to paint the wild flowers she loved.

A job, then, she said to herself, and discovered a streak of practicality she hadn’t known she possessed. After perusing the newspapers, she answered three advertisements for a governess, had an offer from two, and accepted the first. For two happyish years she had been governess, half nursemaid really, to two rosy-cheeked young daughters of a successful leather merchant in Bath.

The Johnsons were kind to her, and, though she was not treated as a daughter, she was treated well. Then Mrs. Johnson’s sister came to them for Mrs. Johnson’s third lying-in. The mother and child survived, but the peace of the household did not. The sister took Delsie in jealous dislike and made her life so miserable that she left before she was turned off.

With her new practicality, she had a new position lined up before leaving. Back home at Questnow, St. Mary’s Parish School was looking for a teacher. They advertised for a male, but Delsie answered it and, with a little help from the vicar, got the job. Her modest salary of a hundred pounds a year may have been instrumental. A male would have got half as much again.

So it was back to Questnow, the sleepy little village by the sea that she and her mother had ended up in after returning from Ireland so long ago, and where they had lived till the remove to Bath for schooling. It was originally the name that had attracted them.

“We are on a quest now, Delsie, a quest for peace and happiness. I hope we may find it here. I love the sea. You, who were born at sea, must like it too.” They had found relative peace, but little true happiness.

How happy could a young girl be, constantly reminded of her gentility, constantly urged not to associate with the other children on the street, daughters of fishermen and chandlers and even smugglers? No, it had not been happy, looking through a window at youngsters having a good time playing with a ball or a rope, while one must herself be content with an infinitesimally small back yard, or a parlor. As she grew older, she came to realize happiness for her mother and herself lay further up the coast, on a promontory that was called simply deVigne’s hill. There was the Olympian world of gentility, even nobility, for the owner of the hill and all that lay within its ken was Baron deVigne, sixth baron and holder of the domain. When he rode into Questnow in his crested carriage, or astride his high-bred mount, or in one of his fancy sporting curricles, every eye turned. The common folk, most of whom were beholden to him in one way or another—either as a tenant, or with a son or daughter in his employ, or the recipient of outright charity—bobbed their heads in respect as he passed. Delsie Sommers never curtsied. Neither she nor her mother owed anything to him.

“Our blood is as good as his,” Mama said, but in a defensive way. The blood may have been, but there equality ended. The house, the carriages, the clothing, even the face and form of the deVigne line—all were unexceptionable. The baron himself was tall, well-formed, dark and handsome, with only a slightly arrogant cast to his countenance to mar perfection.

The sundry ladies who accompanied him to the village in his carriage were also objects of keen interest. Whether dowager, daughter, friend, or relative, they all seemed to possess elegance, and if not actually beautiful, there was an aura of glamor surrounding them that was stronger than mere beauty. Their lovely bonnets, their exquisite gowns, their tinkling silver laughter, breathed of money, of a life of ease and refinement. They came to Questnow, sometimes in groups, sometimes singly, sometimes with children, often with dogs, but always bringing with them that whiff of glamor and excitement, and invariably leaving in their wake a fierce sense of resentment in the heart of Delsie Sommers.

These people became known by sight to Delsie and her mother as deVigne’s aunt, Lady Jane, who had a husband called Sir Harold, the pair of them living in the Dower House on the hill. There was deVigne’s sister, Louise, who was married to a Mr. Grayshott, a fabulously rich commoner. This pair were not seen much except in the summer, when they inhabited a structure, also on the hill, called simply Grayshott’s cottage. The old Dowager Lady deVigne passed away early on. Each new beauty that accompanied deVigne to town was examined with curiosity, always with the thought that she might eventually be the new Lady deVigne, a post as yet unfilled.

Delsie used to imagine what it would be like to live up there, on the hill, in one of the fabulous mansions that dotted the slope. There would be parties, frequent company, horses, trips to London, fine rooms, and parks and gardens. The Hall, Baron deVigne’s own establishment, was said to have more than forty chambers abovestairs. It was surely criminal for one man to have so much space to himself, when she and her mother must be cramped into three small rooms.

“Strothingham’s Abbey has fifty bedrooms,” Mama said. Much good they did the Sommerses!

The years dragged by slowly in Questnow. Delsie grew from a child to a young lady and finally went away to Bath, with never a sign of recognition from the deVignes. They were too poor, and their rich blood too unknown, to be on calling terms with the local nobility, yet not poor enough to excite charity. They inhabited a sort of anonymous no-man’s-land, meeting only occasionally in the village streets or being in the same building at church on Sunday. The deVignes did not attend the local assemblies, and the Sommers ladies held themselves above going to deVigne’s annual public day to rub shoulders with tenant farmers and fishermen. There was no common meeting place, and so through the years they never met.

Though they were not formally acquainted, one of the gentlemen on the hill became aware of the quiet young lady who did not curtsy to deVigne, who looked past them all with a nonchalant gaze which successfully concealed her rampant interest in them and all their doings. He became first aware, then interested, and finally infatuated to an almost insane degree.

Delsie did not hear, while at Bath, that Mrs. Grayshott had died in childbirth. When she returned to Questnow after graduation, Mr. Grayshott was already a widower of one year, and Miss Sommers had blossomed into a handsome, accomplished young lady with a pair of clear, imperious gray eyes, a strong chin, a lofty bearing, and a crown of chestnut curls. He made any excuse into the village to see her, spent whole mornings lounging outside the local inn, just to catch a glimpse of her as she went to the post office or to the shops. Finally, the week after Mama’s death, he came to call.

In her gratification at seeing Mr. Grayshott, brother-in-law to deVigne, at her door, Miss Frisk lost her head and had Delsie called down to her own parlor to meet him. Mr. Grayshott had a young daughter—he was clearly come to offer Miss Sommers the job of tending her. What a blessing for the girl! Her mama just dead, and money certainly in very short supply. Delsie spoke of looking for a position. Though she never learned the truth of that meeting, she could not have been more surprised than Miss Sommers herself at what transpired.

Upon first entering the parlor, Delsie had recognized Mr. Grayshott. His general contours, his outfit, were familiar, as one knows by sight a familiar landmark, yet on closer examination she found the face to be not as she expected. Older, for one thing, more lined, the eyes fatigued and the mouth having a despondent downward curl to the lips. Ah, but Miss Frisk had mentioned his losing his wife—that would account for it.

Before long, she also discerned something unmentioned by Miss Frisk. Mr. Grayshott had been drinking. The aroma, and a certain unsteadiness in both speech and legs, told this as clearly as if he held a bottle in his hands. “Forgive my coming here, unknown to you,” he said, bowing formally. “I am Grayshott. I live up on the hill.” He waved a hand vaguely towards the north.

“How do you do, Mr. Grayshott. I take it you are aware who I am, as you have asked to see me.” Her conclusion as to his asking to see her coincided exactly with Miss Frisk’s. She had been elated at first. What an excellent thing to have a good job land in her lap, one as well that would take her up the hill. When she realized he had been drinking, she wondered if it were a regular thing with him, in which case she was loath to go to work for him.

“Does not all the world know Miss Sommers?” he asked, his voice becoming wild.

“I shouldn’t think so,” she replied, in confusion.

“Modest! Oh, too modest. You must know I have been admiring you from afar.”

“Indeed, Mr. Grayshott!” She looked at him in alarm, eyeing the door in case of requiring a hasty exit.

“Forgive me! My emotions overpower me, seeing you like this for the first time. So lovely, lovelier even than I had supposed. Since the death of your poor mother, I have begun to hope—only hope, Miss Sommers—I do not by any means take it for granted...” He stopped, weaving on his feet, and a foolish smile settled on his hagged features as he sank into observing her.

She arose and edged towards the door. “What is it you want of me?” she asked, deciding on the spot she would refuse the position he had come to offer.

“I want you to be my wife.”

“Oh!” She stared in blank astonishment. “You cannot be serious!”

“I am totally serious. Marry me, Miss Sommers, and I will do all in my power to make you happy. I have loved you ever since your return to Questnow. I could not believe, when I heard in the village, that you were the little girl who left some years ago to go to school. Do not fear this is only a passing fancy.”

“It is quite impossible!” she replied, becoming angry at his impertinence.

“Make it possible! Say yes,” he implored, his voice becoming maudlin.

“I’m sorry. No, I could not possibly.” She reached the door and fled upstairs to her room, without even saying good-bye. She was trembling from head to foot when she sat on the edge of her bed, as if she had just escaped a horrible fate. She marveled at the strange interview for days, but it was just at this time that she received the offer from the Johnsons, and her life was busy arranging the move, so that she did not dwell on it as she might otherwise have done. It became, in time, a bizarre experience she could consider with amusement—the day poor Mr. Grayshott had come to her, drunk, and offered marriage.

When she returned to Questnow again after leaving the Johnsons, to take up her post at St. Mary’s School, she rather wondered if Mr. Grayshott would repeat his solicitation. Meeting him on the street one day a week after her return, she observed that he had gone rapidly downhill. His drunkenness was apparent now at a glance. His clothing had become disheveled, his hair not well groomed, and his face not lately shaved. He presented an altogether displeasing appearance. She crossed the street to avoid meeting him head on. But her tactic was in vain. Again he came to her at Miss Frisk’s, to which apartment she had returned, and again he made his preposterous offer, in more exaggerated phrases than formerly. And again he received very short shrift.

“Please go away and don’t bother me again,” she said coldly. She was older now, more sure of herself, and he was no longer a character of any importance. She gave it very little thought this time.

He had not bothered her again. He cast soulful eyes at her when they passed occasionally on the streets of the village, but he did not approach her, and after a few months she ceased to see him. Then her life settled into a dull routine, teaching at the school, reading in the evening, or playing piquet with Miss Frisk, who was making a bosom bow of her, going occasionally to a villager’s home for an evening of entertainment, as she would not have been allowed to do had Mama been alive. But a young girl needed some company after all, and so she went.

On that dreary morning in early November, she plodded along the road to the school, with no thought that before she had returned to her room a whole new horizon would have opened before her. There would be a crack in the magic door that would lead eventually to the hill.

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ISBNs
1610847199
9781610847193