“Bearsham Manor, 15th April 1793
To my beloved son Richard,
If this letter has come into your possession, it means that I have gone to meet my Maker.
For my own sake, I hope that it has been a peaceful passing, but we do not have a say in the way that we part from this world, do we?
I deliberately kept the enclosed information from you because it was my sincerest intention to share it with you someday. If you are reading this, then life has not granted me that chance.
I have only myself to blame, because I never took the time to sit down with you and talk about it. You were at Cambridge University until recently, and presently, you are enjoying the Season in Town with your friends. I do not want to begrudge you that, Richard, so I shall write as complete an account as possible. Pray God that I shall have the opportunity to confide the whereabouts of this story before I die.
I am not well, Richard. The condition of my heart is dire, or so Dr Prentice tells me. I could die at any moment. On the other hand, I could also live on for some years. It is not for me to decide. Therefore, I must be prepared.”
Richard lowered the letter and closed his eyes, inwardly shivering.
The dismal memory of his father’s last days earlier that year hit Richard with a force that painfully squeezed at his very heart. At the time his father had written this, in early 1793, Richard had been enjoying his third London Season. All he had truly been doing, was wasting his days with his friends, mindlessly so, and he had been full of his own desires for the future. There had been a few summonses from Donby, who was his father’s secretary in those days. He had written in no uncertain terms that Sir Robert was unwell and that Richard’s presence at Bearsham Manor was urgently requested. Richard had ignored the first few letters and had proceeded with his life of soirées and balls, jousting bouts at the boxing parlour, and lazy mornings at his club. That is, until his father’s Eastbourne solicitor, Mr Brownslow had turned up in London in person, and had made Richard fully aware of the way things were lying. Sir Robert, Mr Brownslow had said, reproach in his eyes, was on the brink of death.
With a sigh, Richard continued reading.
“The bequest of my worldly goods is quite straightforward as you well know. My solicitor Mr Brownslow informed you of the contents of my will, the moment you came home from Cambridge.
You are entitled to the title of Baronet Bearsham when I pass on. The Bearsham Manor estate and the bulk of my fortune and investments will come entirely to you.
Your half-sister Lily de Briers had a right to some of the funds that issued from her mother’s family, the Montroses. Therefore, I would have made certain that she acquired that money, had not fate decided otherwise.
Lily has been dead for several long years, but her children will have their mother’s share. That is my fervent wish, and I have made provisions for that in my will as you are aware. I will ask of you that you seek out the whereabouts of Manon Favier and her brother Jéhan and that you will give them their rightful share. You are a man of honour, Richard and thus you will act upon my wishes. I have no doubt about that.”
Again Richard’s thought drifted back to the time when his father had lain dying.
His father had seemed to be asleep for the better part of the day, Richard had discovered, once he had returned to the Manor. He recalled the long hours he had spent at his father’s bedside, reminiscing over his own, up-until-then frivolous life.
For the first time in his life, Richard had felt the full responsibility that would befall him, as soon as his father passed away. The livelihoods of his tenants and servants would lie in his ability to keep the estate thriving. His mother’s fast-approaching declining years would be his to manage. And finally, Manon and Jéhan Favier, who at that moment in time were still unknown to him, would be his responsibility as well.
The enormity of his task had threatened to overwhelm Richard, as he now recalled. He picked up the letter where it had fallen from his hand and realised he had not even registered that he dropped it.
“By now, you will have been informed by Mr Brownslow that I have kept up a steady correspondence with Thibaut Favier, since the death of dearest Lily. Before that horrible event, I had no inkling of the Favier family’s whereabouts until Thibaut wrote me that she had died giving birth to Jéhan. It was as terrible a blow to me, Richard, as it was to you. Fortunately, we had one another to lend us comfort. However, Thibaut and Manon had nothing, apart from the task of having to raise little Jéhan. Thibaut recently informed me of the alarming turn of events in the French capital. Riots, arson, and killings have become a daily pattern, and Thibaut is worried. So I will have to ask you to go on a journey to France anytime soon and bring the family to England. There is, however, one detail that you should know about Lily, my son, although it will not alter anything and certainly will not change anything with regard to the provisions I have made for Manon and Jéhan.”
Manon had been reading the letter over her uncle’s shoulder with rising excitement. She now felt a quickening of her pulse and gripped her uncle’s arm unawares, while the contents of Sir Robert’s letter kept unfolding. She was going to discover new facts about Maman, whom she had missed so dreadfully all through those five years since her brother was born. This letter, Manon realised with a start, was all about her dearest mother.
Together, they read on.
“My dearest Elizabeth was a daughter of Reginald Montrose, a Scottish lord whose family fled the country after the Jacobite Risings. Sir Reginald’s grandfather swore allegiance to King George and was rewarded with the modest estate of Montrose in Yorkshire. Under the diligent care of several barons Montrose, their estate prospered, and the family grew to considerable wealth. Sir Reginald was able to provide for a suitable London Season for his only daughter. Elizabeth Montrose was therefore placed in the care of an elderly spinster aunt who owned a house in London. His steward, James MacIntyre was given the task of accompanying Elizabeth to the capital. They arrived in due time at the residence of Miss Horatia Satterthwaite on Curzon Street.
I was presented to Elizabeth by one of my long-time friends in the capital on the evening of a ball. I instantly fell head-over-heels in love with her, and to my infinite joy, she returned my feelings, even though she was only nineteen and I was thirty. I asked for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage and was granted permission to court her. We set our wedding date for the following summer, and I escorted my beloved girl around Town to balls and soirées. It was the happiest time of our lives.”
Whereto was all this leading? Richard mused. Why was his father elaborating over his courtship to his first wife? Of course, Richard knew that Sir Robert’s matchless love had been Elizabeth and not Mildred, Richard’s own mother. He had known that all his life, even though his father had never uttered a single word about the nature of his marriage to either Elizabeth or Mildred. Richard had never known Elizabeth, since she died giving birth to Lily, but every time he had seen Robert look at her portrait on the wall of Bearsham Manor’s grand entrance hall, Richard had felt her presence in the way his father gazed at her stunningly beautiful image – a gaze Robert never used when he looked at Mildred. This simple fact did not surprise Richard at all, since his mother must be the coldest woman on earth.
Robert and Elizabeth’s love must have been earth-shattering, Richard thought if his father had still missed her even after he had married someone else and begotten a son by her.
“Then, at the end of the Season, my life was shaken to the core when Elizabeth disappeared quite abruptly from London, without saying a word to anyone, including me. I quite dreadfully bullied her elderly aunt into telling me that Elizabeth had gone back to Montrose. I went after her, of course, and forced my way into her father’s study. Baron Montrose had refused to see me at first, you see. His daughter, he said, could not become my wife, because she had shamed his name in a most unforgivable way. She had eloped with his steward, James MacIntyre.
Initially, I was devastated, of course. I was so deeply hurt – not only was my pride wounded, but also and more deeply, my heart – that I fled to Bearsham Manor and licked my wounds in solitude. I could not believe what my Lizzie had done, and the pain of her betrayal was so immense that I indulged myself in wallowing in my sorrows for a few months. Eventually, I recovered and got my wits back. I remembered Lizzie’s love for me and her sweet, unspoiled nature, her warm loving heart. I started to have some serious doubts about what had happened. So after nearly half a year, I started searching for her.
Baron Montrose had no notion as to where the pair had fled to, but he said MacIntyre had relatives near Inverness in Scotland. I went there as quickly as I could and found Elizabeth in a small, dismal cottage on the estate of a local nobleman. She was working as a scullery maid in the laird’s kitchens and she was heavily pregnant with MacIntyre’s child. The man himself had sailed to the Americas after he had killed one of the laird’s footmen in a drunken row. He had simply abandoned Elizabeth and had never married her.
Elizabeth had succumbed to the man’s coaxing charms and had given herself to him. But the steward had only wished to bed her. On his part, it had been only lust he had felt for her since she came out of the schoolroom. Once it was spent, the man lost his interest in her. Elizabeth had followed him to Scotland when he ran from London, terrified that her father would find out about his dastardly deed. They had tried to settle down in his childhood home, but MacIntyre had been drunk for most of the time. Elizabeth was forced to work if she wanted to have food in her belly and a roof above her head.
Richard, it was utterly horrible.
When I found my Lizzie after all those months, I realised I had never stopped loving her. She was everything for me as she had been before and she would always be the love of my life. I brought her to Bearsham Manor and married her, despite her being pregnant with another man’s child. It did not matter one iota that she had betrayed me. I knew quite simply and plainly that I could not live without her. When Lily was born, some three months later, Elizabeth did not have the strength to survive the extremely difficult birth. Guilt had plunged her into a deep depression, but on top of that, she could not overcome the raging fever that came after the baby’s birth. All I had left of my beloved Lizzie was a beautiful baby girl with green eyes and auburn curls, just like her mother’s. I vowed, to myself and to God, to raise Lily as my own and to love her as deeply as I had loved Lizzie.
I have kept my promise, Richard, and so must you. You must give Lily’s children what I have set upon them, and you must save them, protect them, and cherish them for the rest of your life. Your sister, Richard, even though she was an illegitimate child, was the daughter of my heart, just as you were the son of my heart and my beloved heir.
You are a man of honour, Richard. I know, in the deepest part of my heart, that you will not disillusion me.
Farewell, my son. May the Almighty Lord in his all-embracing mercy watch over you and yours, for the rest of your life.
Robert de Briers, Baronet Bearsham”