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Miss Hartwell's Dilemma

Miss Hartwell's Dilemma by Carola Dunn
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Amaryllis Hartwell’s Academy for Young Ladies has been a life saver. After her father caused a scandal, and left her without funds, she made the Academy her refuge and her cause—employing her dear aunt and devoted governess and creating a worthy establishment. But the new school year brings Lord Pomeroy, her old suitor, and Lord Daniel Winterborne, a student’s disreputable father, as well as a sinister Spaniard who seems to be spying on all of them. Miss Hartwell becomes the student—who must learn to trust her own heart.

Regency Romance by Carola Dunn

Prequel to Two Corinthians

Belgrave House; January 1989
184 pages; ISBN 9780802710413
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: Miss Hartwell's Dilemma
Author: Carola Dunn

Miss Hartwell sighed with relief as she ruled two neat lines below the last figure in her account book. Leaning back in her chair, she gazed out of the window at the pink and yellow roses blooming in the front garden. She took off the spectacles she wore to make herself look like a school­mistress.

It was not easy to persuade the parents of prospective students to take seriously this tall, slim, elegant redhead with no more than twenty-six years in her dish. Though she wore the plainest gowns in dreary browns and greys, long-sleeved and high to the neck, a poor fit was more than she could bring herself to sink to. And though she braided her hair, tied it in a topknot, and covered it with a spinsterish cap, copper curls were forever escaping to betray her.

Nonetheless, she had succeeded in instilling confidence in a large enough number of anxious Mamas that after six years the Castle Hedingham Academy for Young Ladies was flourishing.

Daisy, the parlourmaid, peeped round the door of her study. “I’ve brung the post, miss, and a great heap there do be.” She deposited the pile on the desk.

“People will wait until a week or two before the start of the school year to decide where to send their daughters. Oh dear, I simply cannot manage more than another two or three.” Miss Hartwell sorted through the papers. “At least most of these are franked.”

“There were sixpence to pay, miss, but there’s a letter from America, too, with three shilling due. I didn’t have enough by me, not and get the lamb for Cook and Mrs. Vaux’s needles.”

“That’s all right, Daisy. I shall walk down to the village myself and fetch it. Though if it is another spoiled brat used to slaves obeying her every whim, I shall most definitely not have room for her.”

“I mind that young lady from Carolina, miss, her as couldn’t pick up her own pocket handkerchee.”

“Perhaps she has written to us. Fetch me my parasol, if you please, and tell Mrs. Vaux I am going out but shall return for luncheon. I have an appointment this afternoon.”

The August morning was sultry. As she strolled up King Street, Miss Hartwell was glad of the parasol, a pale grey affair with modest white ruffles, matching her grey muslin round dress. In Queen Street a cart loaded with aromatic hops rumbled past her, raising a cloud of dust that made her cough. She had forgotten that it was Monday, market day. The Bell Inn was bound to be crowded. She usually avoided the village centre on market days.

The vicar came through the gate of the churchyard as she passed.

“Good morning, Mr. Raeburn,” she said with a smile.

He was a middle-aged, round-faced, cheerful gentleman, bespectacled, somewhat portly, and an inch or two below her in height. A faint scent of peppermint always hung about him, though he had never been seen to eat peppermint lozenges. She sometimes suspected that his adherence to Church doctrine was less than total, but he shepherded his flock with great goodwill, always ready to help those in need.

“Good morning, Miss Hartwell.” He raised his hat in salute, then took a large square of blue-spotted cotton from his pocket and dabbed his forehead. A black umbrella dangled from his arm. “We are in for a storm, an I mistake not. It is hot even inside the church. I hope you have not far to walk?”

“No, just to the Bell. Do you go my way?”

He shook his head regretfully. “No, I am bound for Sheepcote Road. I shall call in at the school on my return, if I may.”

“By all means. Miss Tisdale will be delighted to see you— as will my aunt, of course.” Her quizzing eye noted a slight intensification of the ruddiness of his cheeks. “Perhaps you will join us for luncheon?”

“Thank you, ma’am. I shall be happy to.”

“Then I shall see you presently. Good day, Mr. Raeburn.”

“Good day, Miss Hartwell.” He tipped his hat again and set off the way she had just come.

As she turned the corner into St. James’s Street, she paused to contemplate the busy scene. From a little beyond the Bell Inn where the street widened, as far as the green by the forge, hop growers argued price and quality with brewers’ agents, harvesters haggled with farmers’ wives over baskets of ripe, juicy plums and pears, a peddler hawked his trinkets, and the children of the villagers dashed about underfoot adding to the noise and confusion.

This prospect had probably not changed very much since mediaeval times, thought Miss Hartwell. If it was fated that she should be a schoolmistress, she could not ask a better place to teach history. The castle keep, brooding on its hilltop, no longer belonged to the Earls of Oxford, but the market charter granted seven hundred years ago by King John was still in force.

One day she must try to find out whether he had granted it before or after besieging the castle. It seemed odd to give such a valuable prize to one’s enemy.

“Watch out, miss!” shouted a carter rounding the bend behind her at all of two miles an hour. She stepped aside, abandoned her musing, and went on into the Bell.

The long, low coffee-room with its heavy oak beams was still quiet at this hour of the morning and cool and dark after the muggy outdoors. Miss Hartwell closed her parasol as the innkeeper stepped forwards to greet her.

“Morning, miss.”

“Good morning, Mr. Brown. Daisy says you have a letter for me.”

“‘Sright, miss. From the colonies, three shilling due. I’d‘ve let young Daisy take it, for I knows you’re good for the money, miss, but she would have it you might not want to pay that much for a letter from America.”

“Daisy has a poor opinion of Americans. I’ll take it, of course.”

A gentleman entered the room, glanced around with a look of boredom and, ignoring the lady’s presence, called “Landlord!” in an imperative tone.

“I’ll be with you in a moment, sir,” said Mr. Brown. “‘Tis on the mantel in the kitchen, Miss Hartwell. I’ll fetch it this instant.”

As the innkeeper bustled out, the newcomer swung round to stare at Miss Hartwell with hard eyes. She raised her chin and stared back. He was tall and dark, lean though broad-shouldered, carelessly dressed even for the country yet obviously a gentleman. He might have been handsome but for his sombre expression. In his late thirties, she decided, certainly old enough to know better than to examine her in that insolent way.

Under her scrutiny, he raised his eyebrows, bowed slightly, and turned away.

“Here we are, miss.” Mr. Brown was back. “Been directed and redirected all over the country, looks like. That’s why there’d be so much to pay, I daresay, for ‘tis but one sheet. Thank you, miss.”

Giving him the three shillings, she took the letter, dog-eared from its travels, and glanced at the address. As he said, it had been redirected at least twice, every inch of the paper covered with writing. Only one line was clearly legible. All it said was “To Miss Amaryllis Hartwell,” yet she gazed at it in shock.

The line was in her father’s hand. She recognised it immediately, though she had not seen that free-flowing, generous script for six years. She stared, unbelieving.

“You all right, miss?” asked the landlord with concern.

“Miss Hartwell?”

“What? Oh... oh yes, Mr. Brown. Thank you. Just... surprised. I must go.”

Oblivious of the renewed interest of the stranger, she hurried out.

The heat slowed her walk, giving her time to think. She became aware that the letter was still in her hand and thrust it into her reticule. Inevitably her mind returned to the last time she had seen that handwriting, to the gay dinner on that long-ago evening, the splendid gifts, all sold long since, and the painful interview with the lawyer the next day.

Papa had unexpectedly dined with them. She thought it was for the usual reason: he had grown tired of his latest chère amie. To her aunt’s dismay she said as much. Papa had never encouraged her to be mealymouthed, and Bertram admired her too much, or was too indolent, to protest her occasional use of unladylike language.

She shied away from the thought of Bertram.

After dinner Papa had given them each a small box, even Miss Tisdale though she was only his daughter’s ex-governess. How he had enjoyed their cries of delight as they drew forth the contents: emerald and diamond earrings for his dear little Amy, an exquisite cameo pendant for his widowed sister, a necklace of carved ivory and jet beads for Tizzy. He always chose the perfect gift, and she had wondered with what monstrously expensive bauble he had dismissed his opera dancer.

Blind to the present time, she stumbled in a pothole, wrenching her ankle. The brief pain brought tears to her eyes. With an effort she blinked them back, fearful that once started she might not be able to stop weeping.

Concentrating on her steps, she reached the garden gate at last. With fierce determination she gazed at the neat white sign, its elegant black lettering proclaiming to the world that this was The Castle Hedingham Academy for Young Ladies of Good Family, Proprietor Miss A. Hartwell. Twice before, Papa had drastically disrupted her life. Whatever he was up to now, he must not be allowed to destroy her achievement here—hers and Tizzy’s and Aunt Eugenia’s.

Miss Hartwell looked up at the square façade of the red-brick Georgian mansion and counted along the first-floor windows until she came to their private drawing room. Behind that window sat Miss Tisdale, doubtless refreshing her memory of some work of English literature, and Mrs. Vaux, most likely working at her endless stitchery.

Miss Hartwell hurried up the garden path between the neat rosebeds, dashed across the empty vestibule, and ran up the stairs. Pink-cheeked and panting, she burst into the drawing room, a small room furnished with an eye to comfort rather than elegance.

“‘The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.’ Ecclesiastes 9, verse 11,” said Miss Tisdale, whose father and brother were both clergymen. “My dear Amaryllis, do sit down and catch your breath. Then tell us what is the matter.”

“Pray do!” seconded Mrs. Vaux, looking at her niece in alarm. “It must be something quite frightful for your behaviour is usually perfectly unexceptionable, dignified even, yet you have entered the room in what I can only describe as a hoydenish manner.” The widow, a still pretty though faded blonde, took very seriously her position as teacher of deportment and ladylike conduct.

Amaryllis dropped into a chair and drew the letter from her reticule. With shaking fingers she broke the seal, then thrust the paper at Miss Tisdale.

“I cannot. Do you read it, Tizzy, if you please. It is from Papa.” She clenched her hands in her lap.

“Gracious heaven!” cried Mrs. Vaux, “I never thought to hear from my brother again, I vow. What does he say?”

Miss Tisdale scanned the single sheet. Her pale blue eyes widened a little, and her severe mouth twitched at the corners. Still, she spoke with perfect gravity.

“Lord Hartwell is in a fine way of business with a hardware store in Philadelphia. He hopes that if you are not perfectly comfortable in your present situation you will join him, and he remains your ever affectionate father.”

“A hardware store?” Mrs. Vaux asked, puzzled.

“Ironmongery, I believe.”

Amaryllis let out a whoop of laughter. “Papa an ironmonger! And his dress was always in the height of fashion, complete to a shade, even when he had not a feather to fly with. I cannot imagine it. And he wants me to join him behind the counter? Let me see, Tizzy.”

“Is that all Henry says? ‘Pon rep, that is somewhat brief after all these years. And not a word to his sister?” Mrs. Vaux grew pink with indignation. “Does he mention the...the person he ran off with?”

“He begins ‘Inez and I...,’ Aunt. I never enquired as to the name of his inamorata, but that is a Spanish name, is it not? I expect they are married long since. Oh, here is a postscript. It seems I have two brothers.” She laughed again. This time there was a hysterical edge to it. “What do you suppose happens to a title when it is inherited by an American?”

“‘Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.’ Psalm 127, verse 3. Though why the Lord should see fit to reward his lordship I have not the least notion.”

“Perhaps they are horrid children. I always wanted a brother, but not twenty years younger than myself. Tizzy, Aunt Eugenia, what am I to do?”

“Why, nothing at present, my dear,” said Miss Tisdale soothingly. “When you have had time to consider the news calmly, you shall write to your Papa. How odd that his lordship ended up in America. It was 1814 when he left and we were then at war with the Americans. Yes, Daisy, what is it?”

The parlourmaid bobbed a curtsy in the doorway. “Luncheon’s ready, miss, and the vicar’s just come.”

“Oh dear,” said Amaryllis, “I quite forgot I invited him. My apologies to Cook, Daisy. Show Mr. Raeburn up and set another place at the table if you please. Though I don’t believe I shall be able to swallow a mouthful,” she muttered.

All three ladies strove to appear normal at the luncheon table. Mrs. Vaux succeeded because her inconsequential chatter was indistinguishable from her habitual polite commonplaces. Miss Tisdale always appeared grave but the vicar, who greatly admired her ready quotations from the Good Book allied to an irreverently ironic wit that nullified their piety, was conscious of a sense of strain. Miss Hartwell’s artificial brightness, very unlike her usual manner, was interrupted by periods of abstraction when she heard not a word addressed to her. Mr. Raeburn also noticed that her hearty appetite had failed. She refused a slice of the delicious rabbit pie and after peeling a pear ate only two bites.

The terrace at the back of the house was in the shade by the time they had finished, so they repaired thither to drink tea. Miss Hartwell left the others after a few minutes. She had an appointment with a prospective parent. As she disappeared through the French doors, Mr. Raeburn turned to his remaining companions. “Well, ladies,” he said encouragingly, “are you going to tell me what is troubling you?”

“Oh Vicar, how did you guess?” squeaked Mrs. Vaux. “I’m sure I did not speak a word of it.”

“Amaryllis has received a letter from Lord Hartwell,” said Miss Tisdale in a grim voice.

“Lord Hartwell?”

“Her father.”

“Lord Hartwell her father? Bless my soul. Of course she is clearly a lady, but her father a peer! What in the world is she doing running a seminary for young ladies?”

“‘Thereby hangs a tale.’ Hamlet, act 2, scene 5,” said Miss Tisdale, who had no objection to Shakespeare if an apposite Biblical quotation did not spring to her lips. “It is not mine to tell, but if Mrs. Vaux has no objection I believe you should hear it. Perhaps you will be able to advise us.”

“My brother, the viscount, was prodigious extravagant,” said the widow dolefully. “Or perhaps I should say he is, though if he has a thriving business in Philadelphia perhaps he is not anymore.”

“Your brother?” asked Mr. Raeburn, understandably confused.

“Lord Hartwell. He brought an abbey to a grange and then rented it out.”

“His lordship was forced by pecuniary embarrassment to let his country house to a rear admiral,” explained Miss Tisdale. “Amaryllis was very much shocked to have to leave her beloved home.”

“Gambling?” ventured the vicar.

The ladies looked at each other and nodded. Mrs. Vaux took the plunge.

“No. At least, he did gamble, of course, but he was by no means addicted to gaming.” She looked around nervously and then, with a significant look, whispered, “Muslin company!”

The Viscount Hartwell, though approaching fifty, had been a fine figure of a man. His life of dissipation had not blurred his features, dimmed his eyes, nor slowed his step. This he readily attributed to drinking nothing but the best Burgundy and never more than a bottle at a sitting. Neither gamester nor sportsman, he had squandered his fortune on expensively casual liaisons with high flying Birds of Paradise, whom he treated with the same reckless generosity as he did his daughter.

As the vicar did not appear to be excessively shocked, the widow went on, “My sister-in-law died when Amaryllis was only five, and Henry never married again. I lost my dear Mr. Vaux soon after, so I went to live at Hart Hall. Miss Tisdale and I brought up Amaryllis.”

“Her Papa was generous with money and affection, though not with his time, and she worshipped him,” the ex-governess took up the story. “I believe she had a happy childhood. Certainly she was always busy and cheerful.”

“A sad romp, and merry as a grig.”

“Of course she had expected to go to London for the Season when she reached seventeen, but she did not expect to have to live there year round. Mrs. Vaux and I were quite worried about her.”

“She pined for Hart Hall, for the country way of life. We feared she would make herself ill. Then she made her bow to Society, and she did enjoy the balls and assemblies and routs. She was always dressed in the height of fashion, quite the most elegant young female...”

“Thanks to your exquisite taste, ma’am,” interrupted Miss Tisdale.

Mrs. Vaux beamed and blushed. “...But she had changed,” she finished.

“Changed?” prompted Mr. Raeburn.

Miss Tisdale pondered. “She lost her enthusiasm for life,” she said at last. “She enjoyed balls and routs and masquerades, but in a...a sort of careless way, as if it was all meaningless. ‘The fashion of this world passeth away.’  I Corinthians 5, verse 31, and one of my father’s favourite texts. She used to sit for hours doing nothing, dreaming.”

“And eating chocolate cherries. I do not know why she never grew plump. I’m sure I could not have eaten so many chocolate cherries without growing as stout as Prinny. The King, as he is now, but that does not make him less fat. Amaryllis must have been contented though, or she’d not have kept Lord Pomeroy dangling after her for two whole years after they were betrothed. Why, she could have been married to the heir to the Earl of Tatenhill and mistress of a fine country mansion had she wished!”

“Perhaps you had best not tell me about Lord Pomeroy,” suggested the vicar diplomatically. “I rather think that is Miss Hartwell’s personal affair. We were talking of her father?”

“His lordship dined with us one evening unexpectedly and disappeared overnight, leaving only a brief note advising Amaryllis to consult his lawyer. He had sold Hart Hall to the rear admiral. The proceeds he used to pay off all our outstanding bills, though not his own, I believe, and to run off with the daughter of the Spanish Ambassador.”

“Bless my soul, the daughter of the Spanish Ambassador?” The vicar was astounded.

“Henry always preferred dark women,” Mrs. Vaux explained.

“I had thought the gentlewomen of Spain most strictly bred up and guarded.”

“Thus when they taste but a little freedom, they are ready to kick over the traces altogether. They have not been taught self-control since their male relatives have expected always to control them.” Miss Tisdale was deeply indignant but displayed her own self-control and continued with the story. “Naturally, Amaryllis was shattered. I shall not discuss the sense of personal betrayal. She adored her father, remember. Our immediate problem was that she had little ready money, we had less, and the lease on the London house had scarce two weeks to run.”

“What did she do?” Mr. Raeburn took off his spectacles and polished them vigorously on his blue-spotted handkerchief.

“She went to her godmother, Lady Mountolivet Gurnleigh, who offered her a home.”

“Which was amazingly kind of Cornelia, for she is a high stickler for every observance and there was no end of scandal attached to my brother’s behaviour. It almost provoked an International Incident,” said Mrs. Vaux, still faintly awed at the thought.

“She did not accept the offer,” presumed Mr. Raeburn.

“No indeed. The dear girl would not for the world have asked her ladyship to accommodate myself and Miss Tisdale, nor would she abandon us.”

“Lady Mountolivet Gurnleigh then suggested that she should take this house, which was empty at the time, for a peppercorn rent. I believe her ladyship would have given her an allowance, and though Amaryllis refused it, we must still be profoundly grateful to Lady Mountolivet Gurnleigh.”

“You see,” said Mrs. Vaux, bursting with pride in her niece’s ingenuity, “Amaryllis had already decided that we should open a school.”

“And most successful you have been,” said the vicar. He was itching with curiosity about Lord Pomeroy’s absence from the end of the tale, but having prohibited all mention of his lordship, he could hardly ask. “I take it you have not heard from Lord Hartwell until this moment?”

“Not a word,” chorused the ladies.

At that moment a sheet of lightning split the sky. In the ominous pause that followed they realized that while they were talking huge, anvil-shaped clouds had hidden the sky. Then a rattling tattoo crescendoed into a crash of thunder that seemed to shake the ground.

Mrs. Vaux moaned, put her hands over her ears, and scuttled into the house. Miss Tisdale and the vicar followed at a somewhat more dignified pace. They reached the music room and closed the French doors behind them just as “the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth.” Genesis 7, verses 11 and 12.

“Fortunately,” said the vicar, “I brought my umbrella.”