Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, January and February, 1816
Life at Ketteridge House fell into a slow yet regular pattern. The weather continued to be abominable, with snowstorms during the day and freezing cold temperatures during the night. Food and wood had to be brought to the poorest tenants to prevent their families from starving or freezing to death. Rowena, who was slowly recovering from the childbirth, regretted that she could not accompany Meg and her footmen to these people.
She had, of course, problems of her own to tackle. Little Emma was prospering into a healthy and lively child with a temper of her own. She would have bouts of crying whenever she was put into her cradle after her feed, preferring to be in her mother’s arms the whole time. Of course, this was an entirely impossible matter, but the little girl was not inclined to give in easily.
It was at such times that Rowena discovered yet another character trait in her husband. Alex was becoming quite adept in comforting Emma. He would take her in his arms and stretch out on the nursery carpet, little Emma on his stomach. He would sing to her in a pleasant baritone voice and rock her gently until she fell asleep. Her nanny would then pick her up and settle her in her cradle. He would then scramble upward, his long legs untangling themselves from the carpet. She would then feel the strong attraction between them, as she had felt from the first moment they met. She would listen to the deafening pounding of her own heart while she looked up at him, and then experience the feeling of complete and utter loss, as he turned away from her with a bow to leave the nursery.
They were in a deadlock, and Rowena knew not how to overcome the gap that now gaped between them.
February came with milder weather melting the snow and turning the roads into muddy potholes and ruts. People began preparing their fields for sowing and planting, counting on their lord to provide them with the means to carry out their necessary work. The earl of Ketteridge did not let his tenants down, and the inhabitants of the village of Ketteridge finally saw the end of their misery.
Rowena had recovered completely from her childbirth ordeal and was participating fully in the organizing of what would surely be a crucial year in the history of the earldom. With Meg’s help, she had gotten her household under firm control. That left her more time for visiting the poorest of their tenants. She brought food baskets and offered positions at the manor for those who wanted.
Little Emma was thriving under the care of Patty Davis, sister to Tracy Cobbins, the wet nurse. Rowena was, to her own astonishment and great joy, still able to breastfeed her daughter, so the wet nurse was no longer needed. She had been amply rewarded for her willingness to be there for Emma, and Rowena would be forever thankful that Tracy had helped her through the first difficult days of nursing.
There was, however, one flaw to Rowena’s happiness, and that would be her relationship with her husband. It lacked almost everything. They did not see each other through the long winter nights, as Alex slept in his own room. Rowena had heard him cry out in agony during his frequent nightmares, but when she wanted to go and comfort him, she had discovered that both the dressing room door on his side and the corridor door were firmly locked. She confronted Porter over it, but the valet shrugged, saying it were his master’s orders. Porter himself was to wait until the bell summoned him before tending to his master. Rowena had been thoroughly mortified on being forced to give the dour valet a glimpse of her lacking relationship with her husband. She had no inkling as to how she would restore at least a small part of what they had before. It left her in deep sorrow, and she desperately racked her brain to find a solution, yet to no avail.
During the days, Alex was so busy with running his financially precarious estate in the company of John Wallis, that he often did not appear at lunchtime. Meg was frequently ordered to take a tray into the library for the two men. At dinner time, they met in the dining room, which was much larger and grander than the cosy morning room where Rowena had dined many times in the past. These were also Alex’ orders, or so Meg explained. Alex would occupy the head of the long table, that could easily sit thirty people. Rowena’s place would be on the other side, with the whole length between them, but she had firmly objected to that arrangement. On the first evening, she herself had moved all the crockery and cutlery to Alex’ right.
If she had hoped it would induce him to strike up a conversation with her, she was left disappointed. They scarcely exchanged more than ten words during the short meals, and afterwards, Alex would withdraw to his library
It was all very depressing, Rowena thought. She found herself close to weeping in her lonely bed at night, and she hated it. Yet what could she do about it?
On a dreary, wet, late February afternoon, Alex sat brooding over what had just been revealed to him by both Porter and Middlebridge. As it happened, the two men had returned simultaneously from their respective journeys, and they had brought significant yet disturbing news.
Porter reported that Peter Johnston, third son of the earl of Carlisle, had been dishonourably discharged from the Horse Guards after his desertion during the battle of Waterloo. He had never returned to the ancestral home since June 18, 1815, had in fact never been seen again since that day by his grieving family.
Middlebridge had far worse news, however. Horace Bleak, solicitor to Roderick Drake, fourth baron Daveston and Rowena’s half-brother, had been very hard to be contacted. When he finally accepted to see Middlebridge after two weeks of repeated attempts, the solicitor had declared that he could not produce the late baron’s will, since it had not been his privilege to witness or formulate it. George Daveston, Rowena’s father, had made his will at home in the presence of two of his servants. The document had then been kept at the estate but, as Middlebridge pointed out, a copy must have been deposited at the London Probate Office. If Alex so wished, Middlebridge would go to London to get a copy.
“However, my lord,” Middlebridge continued, “if you were to go to Carlisle and speak to Bleak yourself, he might be more forthcoming when he is confronted with an authority higher than himself or the baron.”
Alex considered what he would do in view of the danger that still threatened. He could not leave his house unprotected by going to Carlisle on what seemed a wild goose chase.
“Mr Middlebridge,” he said, “you can accompany Porter to London and find out about the will. I cannot, in all conscience, leave my family alone at this moment. You will both conduct the inquiries that are necessary to comprehend all this, and you will report back to me as soon as possible.”