“But why are you telling me this, Papa? What can I possibly do to aid the fortunes of Bexley Hall?” Lady Eliza Ashton studied her father closely.
Martin Ashton, the Earl of Bexley, was clearly uncomfortable. Eliza could not remember ever seeing him so before, and it was most unsettling. It seemed to Eliza that her father could only meet her eye every so often before looking away again. There was something there she could hardly recognize, and she wondered if it was something he was ashamed of. Whatever it was, it was making her feel even more nervous.
To be told that Bexley Hall, her father’s fine estate, had been ailing for years was no real surprise to her. She had heard both her parents speak aloud their worries on the subject many times over the nineteen years of her life. But she had never truly realized the extent of the worries her parents had, more often than not, they tried to contain as best they could. She realized now that all she had heard in the preceding years was just the tip of a very large iceberg, one that had suddenly grown out of all proportion.
“At a time like this, all members of a family must pull together, Eliza, must they not?” He looked into her brown eyes and hurriedly away again.
When she had first been ushered into the Earl’s study for a private conversation with her father, Eliza had certainly been taken aback. The household at Bexley Hall was comfortable in that it was relaxed, and anything her father had to say to her before then had simply taken place during tea or breakfast or any number of moments in the day when the family were together. Nothing so formal as being asked by the butler, Eames, to attend her father in his study had ever happened before, and her senses were already heightened before she entered the dark, austere little room.
“Indeed, Papa. But we are the only ones here. Mama is not here, and Henry is not here.” Eliza began to feel suspicious, and the physical sensation that accompanied her disquiet seemed to grow.
“We all must do what we can.” Her father looked away again, staring at some point on the deep oak skirting board over by the door.
“And what is my part in this, Papa? For it is clear to me that I must have one.”
“My dear Eliza, perhaps you have the greatest part to play of all of us.” He smiled at her hopefully as if willing her to be proud that she could somehow make a difference.
This time, Eliza was the one to look away. She could not bear for her father to see her fear or worse, her unwillingness even before she knew what it was he wanted of her.
“What is it, Papa? I would rather you came straight to the point because you are making me afraid with your tiptoeing.” She continued to look down, studying the tiny green flowers which had been carefully embroidered onto her ivory gown.
“My dear Eliza, our financial straits are now worse than they have ever been. The estate is losing money by the day, and I have no means by which to pay back the loans I have been forced to take to keep life here at Bexley Hall going.” He paused and sighed, and she realized he saw this as a personal failing.
“But as you told it to me, you were bequeathed an estate that was already ailing for years before it was yours. You ought not to look so responsible for it all, Papa,” she said kindly.
Despite her own fears, Eliza Ashton loved her father dearly and could not bear to see him suffering.
“Yes, but I have never been able to find a way to rescue it, and that was my responsibility.”
“So, what are we to do now? Is it so very bad?” Eliza already knew the answer to her question.
“We are on the verge of losing the estate. Everything. And with no estate, I am sure the title will be useless, perhaps even bestowed upon another family altogether.”
“Oh, my goodness,” Eliza said breathlessly. “I had never imagined it was so far gone. But what shall we do then? Where shall we go?”
“I have no idea. There is nothing left of my personal inheritance, and any money your mother brought into the estate when we married is long gone. We would have to find somewhere to rent, but where and with what I cannot imagine. I will need to find some sort of occupation, employment. But again, I have no trade, obviously, and no clerical skills.”
The Earl looked utterly crestfallen, and Eliza felt her insides suddenly cold and taut at the idea of her father, a man who was not in his first flush of youth, having to seek traditional employment in a world that was not his and never had been.
“Then we are doomed, are we not? There is nothing we can do.” Eliza thought suddenly of her engagement to Miles Gainsborough and felt a guilt-ridden stab of relief.
Whatever the fortunes of her family, she was due to be married to the son of a Baron. Perhaps all was not lost, and yet she could not see how it would be possible for Lord Gainsborough to help the rest of her family.
“We have but one course of action available to us, Eliza.” Her father spoke in a voice that sounded almost unrecognizable to her, and she realized that he was not yet finished; there was worse to come.
“And what is that?” she asked with trepidation.
“I have received an offer of urgent financial assistance from the Duke of Lytton,” he said and seemed to study his daughter for her reaction to the news.
“But if you cannot pay the loans you already have, forgive me, but what good is another?” Eliza had never discussed matters of business with her father before.
She was an intelligent young woman for whom common sense was no stranger, so she did not find the concepts in any way difficult. But the conversation was, and she felt that her father’s revelations to her specifically had somehow changed everything; she could almost feel the old, solid ground begin to shift beneath her feet.
“This would not be a loan,” he began quietly. “And it would be enough money to raise us all up from this dreadful uncertainty and keep the Earldom and estate in the Ashton family for generations to come. It would see off all our loans and return Bexley to a former glory I cannot remember seeing since I was a child myself.”
“Why would the Duke of Lytton do such a thing? After all, you are not a very close friend of his, Papa.”
“No, I cannot claim to be a close friend, but I am reasonably well acquainted with the man.”
“But being reasonably well acquainted does not secure the sort of money you need, Papa. And for it to be a gift and not a loan? There is more to this, I am sure.”
As she studied her father’s face, Eliza was sure that he was greyer and gaunter than she had ever seen him. He truly looked like a man whose cares were wearing him down, but it was the guilt in his eyes she was finding the hardest of all to witness.
“There is more to this, I am afraid.”
“Which has much to do with me if this meeting here is anything to go by.”
“My dear, the Duke has made me a very specific offer.” Before he had even finished his sentence, Eliza knew exactly what that offer was.
In fact, if she was honest with herself, she had already known the only sort of assistance a daughter could provide her family with from the moment it had been mentioned.
“Papa, the Duke of Lytton is an old man,” Eliza said and felt suddenly hot and sick.
“He is in his middle years, it is true. But he is not old. He is but five-and-fifty.”
“And I am but nineteen. Surely you do not think that I should marry this man, whatever is at stake.”
“As I said, when a family is in our sort of trouble, it is incumbent upon us all to pull together and do what we can.”
“But the family is not expected to throw away their lives. Only I am expected to do that. Only I am expendable in the Ashton family. How is my sacrifice an example of a family pulling together?” She felt a well of anger spring up in her chest.
“Because it will cause the rest of us great pain to see you go into a marriage you did not want. But there is no other way.”
“Surely you have not forgotten that I am due to be married to Miles Gainsborough. Do you now demand that I put an end to our engagement? Do you demand that I turn away from the man I love so that I might be married to an old man I have no feeling for?” She knew she was beginning to punish her father but could not stop.
Why was it down to her to solve it all? Why should she make her family safe and happy at the expense of her own heart, her own life even?
“You know that I would not demand it.” He seemed a little angry himself. “You know that I have never treated you that way in all your life, and I am a little insulted that you would speak to me so.”
“It is true that you have never treated me badly for a single day, Papa. But you must look at what you ask of me and feel the fear and pain that I am feeling before you allow your own feelings to be hurt. You cannot be more insulted than I am at this moment. I am no more than cattle to you now, however well you have treated me in the past. In the end, you would see me sold off at the market, and so now you have an idea of my own feelings of insult.” Tears began to roll down Eliza’s face.
“I would never have wanted to hurt you.” Her father’s own eyes shone with tears, and she felt the true weight of the impossibility of their situation.
“Why can Henry not marry someone else, someone who would bring in more money by way of a dowry than his current choice? Why must it be me?” she said, feeling the great gap in the rights of a son and daughter and resenting them more than she had ever had cause to.
Idly, she picked at the raised little embroidered flowers on her gown and knew that she could not do what her father wanted.
She loved Miles Gainsborough with all her heart and had always known that he was the only man she could ever share her life with. He was so handsome and had such maturity and intelligence beyond his five-and-twenty years.
In truth, she could not entirely pinpoint her reasons for loving him, she just knew that she did and that she had since she was a girl of sixteen, and he had seemed like an impossible wish.
“Henry has his heart set on Penelope Arlow, my dear.”
“And I have my heart set on Miles Gainsborough, so that is no argument at all.” She felt a stab of anger once more. “Surely any number of wealthy fathers would be happy to bestow an enormous dowry for the knowledge that their daughter would one day be a countess. Can you not capitalize upon that and request that Henry be the one to make the sacrifice? Why must it be me?”
“I am not making your brother more important, Eliza. I am just being practical. No amount of dowry any father in the county could provide would come close to a quarter of what the Duke has promised me. The estate could not be saved with that, so there is no sense in making Henry miserable too.”
“But every practical sense is making me miserable. And repulsed, Papa, for I cannot bear to think of a married life with an old man I cannot bear to look at.”
“As I said before, I am not making a demand of you. In the end, it must be your decision.” He looked sad and a little helpless.
Despite her father’s kindness over the years, still, she had always played second fiddle to her brother, as all young women did. And it was true to say that she had resented Henry for it at times, and with good reason.
He had always seen his elevated status as his right. Not that he was an unpleasant or arrogant man, it was just that he never questioned his sense of entitlement. In that, he was likely little different from any other young man in such a hallowed position.
But the thing which angered her most was that she knew Henry would not even think to question it now. He would think his sister’s sacrifice right and proper because she held no power and did not entirely matter to the Earldom. She was just a spare part, one who would come in useful, even though she knew her brother did love her.
Her brother loved her, her father loved her, and her beloved mother loved her too. But that love would do nothing when they stood to face an uncertain future. And rather than weather the storm together, as a family, they were each of them willing to let her shoulder the burden so that they might continue to enjoy the life they had always had.
And for that reason, Eliza found that she felt suddenly very differently about them all. She had lost something inside herself, some feeling of home and love that would never, ever come back, whatever she decided to do next.
“You have made this my decision in the hopes that I shall buckle under the weight of the responsibility, Papa,” she said and held up a little hand to stop him when he drew breath to speak again. “You know how I love you all, and you are certain that I will end my engagement to Miles and marry the Duke to save you all. And by making it my decision, Papa, you have released yourself from true guilt. You can always reassure yourself that it was my choice and be satisfied. But I want you to know that is not truly the case. You have laid the responsibility of the entire family’s fortunes on my shoulders, and I think you are confident of a positive outcome. Positive for the three of you, at any rate. Perhaps it would have been better if you had ordered me, for I think you should at least suffer a little if I am to suffer entirely.”
“Eliza, please …”
“I have not decided what I shall do, but I know that I will never forgive you for this day, no matter what the outcome of it all. I shall never forgive any of you.”
“Please, your mother need not hear you say that,” he said beseechingly.
“I see that I am to sacrifice my own feelings but spare all of yours.” She laughed mirthlessly. “Well, I would beg you to release me now, Father,” she said, choosing not to call him the more endearing Papa for the first time in her life. “After all, I have much to think about, do I not?”
“Very well, Eliza,” he said with a sad nod. “But I would beg you to put such feelings aside and look at it all in a practical way.”
“There is no practical way to look at a heart unless one is a surgeon and intends to cut it out,” she said, wincing at the brutality of her own words before silently leaving the room and closing the door behind her.