A Regrettable Reputation is a love story, set in Yorkshire in the year after the Battle of Waterloo. The Duke of Wellington is still in France with the Army of Occupation, and at home it is a time of change, of the Industrial Revolution and of social upheaval, especially in the textile towns of the north which are rapidly growing into cities.
Nicholas Witham is a former officer of light infantry, seriously wounded at Waterloo, who has found employment as a land agent managing the Yorkshire estate of Lord Ashberry. Into his peaceful, well-ordered life comes Camilla Dorne, a woebegone heiress whose elopement ended in disaster and disgrace and who has been sent away from London with her reputation in tatters. Before long the very respectable Mr Witham realises that Camilla is not at all what he might have expected, while Camilla begins to realise that the loss of her reputation might not be the disaster she had thought.
A Regrettable Reputation is the first of the Light Division romances, a series which follows the fortunes of some of the officers and men of the Light Division beyond Waterloo. It features several characters from the Peninsular War Saga. The second book in the series, The Reluctant Debutante, is also available on Amazon in kindle and paperback.
The hiring fair and market took place on a the Horse Fair which was a large field just to the east of the market square. There was a full market in the town as local farmers and traders took advantage of the increased business, and it spread along the high street and spilled out onto the field. The town was packed with people from all walks of life and Nicholas wondered for a moment if he had been wise to bring the girl. He drove down to the Red Lion and handed over his curricle to the grooms, glancing at her face. She was looking around, bright eyed and interested and he remembered that she had spent much of her life in the crowds and noise of London and was unlikely to be overawed by a country fair.
He helped her down and turned to Taggart to give him his instructions then offered his arm to the girl. They strolled into the throng, pausing occasionally to look at a stall.
“We’ll walk down to Mr Arnold’s place of business, if you don’t mind. I shouldn’t be with him longer than half an hour, his maid can give you tea while you wait,” Nicholas said. “After that we can go over to the hiring fair and see what we can find and then we can do our shopping. Is there anything you particularly need?”
She shook her head, smiling. “No indeed. It’s just such a joy to be out in the world again. Thank you for this, Mr Witham, I had not realised how much I had missed it.”
Nicholas smiled. “You’re too young to be a hermit,” he said. “We should, however, be prepared for a little curiosity. Should we meet an acquaintance I propose to introduce you as a guest staying at the hall. Nobody will ask more than that, no matter how curious they are.”
“Don’t you mind?”
Nicholas laughed. “Curiosity? Not really. I spent so long in the army which is a surprisingly closed community, especially in the Peninsula. We all knew far too much of each others business, it was impossible not to. Sometimes it could be exasperating, but it certainly inures one to gossip and busybodies.”
“I am not sure I am ever going to become accustomed to being the object of that kind of attention,” Camilla said. “But I should not complain; I did it to myself.”
Nicholas glanced sideways at her. She seemed perfectly composed but he could sense the unhappiness behind her calm exterior. “It isn’t my place to say so, Miss Dorne. I know so little of the circumstances and it is not my business. But if something of the kind happened to one of my sisters I would be asking a lot of questions about my mother’s chaperonage of them. You may have made a mistake but at your age that is to be expected. There are several other people who should share in the blame.”
Camilla looked up at him quickly, a blush staining her cheek. “Thank you. You are so kind to me.”
“It isn’t difficult. Here we are.”
The lawyer’s office was situated in a tall Georgian building with long windows and colonnades outside. A maid admitted them and led them upstairs where Mr Arnold himself came to greet them. He was a bewhiskered gentleman in his fifties with a friendly smile and he shook Nicholas’ hand and regarded Camilla with polite surprise.
“Mr Arnold, may I introduce you to Miss Dorne? She is a guest at the hall, recovering from an indisposition with the help of good country air and Yorkshire food. She has accompanied me today as she is in need of a new abigail. I was wondering if your housekeeper could give her some tea while we conduct our business.”
“Indeed she shall. A pleasure to meet you, Miss Dorne. I am sorry to hear that you have been unwell, but a stay in the country is just the thing, you’ll be feeling yourself in no time. I shall ring for Mrs Cobb. Will you be at Ashberry long?”
“I am unsure,” Camilla said. “Thank you, you are very good.”
“No trouble at all for such a pretty young lady. Are you fit for company yet? You must tell me you are, I insist upon it. We’ve a small party planned for Tuesday next, nothing formal, just a few friends. I’ve a daughter you know, recently married, can’t be much older than you. I was going to invite Mr Witham here, but we should be very happy if you would join us.”
Camilla coloured. “That is so kind, sir, but I should not wish to trouble you. As yet I have no duenna with me since I have not been going into company…”
“Nonsense!” Mr Arnold said robustly. “That sort of stuff may be important in London but we aren’t so formal here. My wife will happily act as chaperone for the evening, and Witham here can bring you in the carriage with your maid. There now, it’s all settled.”
Seated in Mr Arnold’s office, Nicholas moved quickly on to business and the lawyer did not object. The matters were not complex and did not take long. When they were concluded, Arnold rose and went to pour sherry.
“It’s going well up there,” he said, handing Nicholas a glass. “I wonder if Lord Ashberry has any idea how much money you’re saving him since you took over. You’re a good manager, lad.”
Nicholas smiled and raised his glass. “Thank you, sir. Perhaps it’s due to living on an officers pay for so long.”
Arnold laughed. “Well I hope he realises what a good bargain he made, taking you on. And now he’s got you nursemaiding a young lady of doubtful virtue.”
Nicholas raised his eyebrows. “You know?”
“Aye. His lordship wrote to me. Thought I should be aware.”
“Then I’m surprised you issued that invitation, sir. I won’t have her embarrassed.”
“Don’t you know me better than that, lad? It’s a disgrace, sending a chit of that age to live alone. Good idea, the story about an illness? Yours?”
“Yes. I had to come up with something. And she wasn’t well when she got here so it’s partly true.”
“Well people are going to gossip, lad. But it will be worse if she hides herself away. I’ve no objection to meeting the girl. Everyone deserves a second chance. And somebody will give her one; there’s a tidy portion when she’s twenty five and a nice little estate in Surrey, I’m told.”
“You seem to know more about it than I do, sir.”
“She might suit you.”
Nicholas felt himself flush. “Is that what you think of me, sir? That I’d take advantage of a vulnerable girl in her position for money?”
“No, lad. But Sir Edward Penrose is lucky you’re not. Like I said, it’s a disgrace, sending that child here alone. He knows nothing about you, could have been another ne’er -do-well like Seymour.”
“Is that what he was?”
“So I’m told. Militia officer, no money, some minor branch of an old Wiltshire family. You know the full story?”
Nicholas shook his head. “No. Do I want to?”
“Perhaps you should and the girl can’t tell you. He’d been after her for months but rumour has it she wasn’t as easy as he thought. In the end he approached her stepfather and got the flea in his ear that he deserved. He’d got a reputation, not the first heiress he’d dangled after.”
“I imagine not. I doubt that his first choice would have been to wait seven years for her to come into her fortune.”
“No. Although I think once she’s married the Trustees have some freedom to grant an allowance, perhaps even the right to live at her house. Not sure about the arrangements. Anyhow, once Penrose had forbidden him to speak to her at all it must have got easier to persuade her I suppose. She agreed to an elopement. They set off for the border. Penrose followed them.”
“And caught up with them. Fortunate, I suppose.”
“Wasn’t it? Except that luck wasn’t involved. That bastard Seymour had sent a message telling him where to find them. Penrose arrived to find him in bed with her. Walked in on them in an inn bedroom.”
“Oh no,” Nicholas said softly.
“Aye. Poor lass. It was staged, of course, to push up the price. He wanted money to go away and leave her alone. Couldn’t wait for the trust to be up, he’d debts. Penrose didn’t want to pay. They negotiated and eventually came to a price. He bought Seymour a decent commission in a cavalry regiment and paid his debts, gave him a bit extra. Seymour took the lot and then spread the story all round London, including details of how they’d been discovered. Sheer spite because he didn’t get what he’d asked for.”
“Dear God. And then he sent her up here without even an abigail to keep her company? What the hell is wrong with him?”
“A fair few things, I’m told. Penrose has two daughters he’s keen to establish well, and if rumour is true he’s got his eye on a pretty little widow of his own with a nice fortune. He inherited from his second wife but not as much as he’d hoped, most of it is in trust for the girl. I suppose he wanted to disassociate himself and his girls as quickly as possible.”
“Yes. Well if I were his pretty widow it would make me take a very long hard look at how he treats a vulnerable woman. Useful information in making her choice, I’d say.”
Arnold laughed and refilled the two glasses. “You’ve taken a liking to her, haven’t you, lad?”
“I suppose I have,” Nicholas admitted. “I hardly know the girl but I like what I’ve seen of her. She’s coped very well, considering. Seems willing to make the best of a bad situation. She’s started working with Taggart on some of our promising youngsters, she’s a capital horsewoman and has excellent hands. And she doesn’t mope or complain although I think she has a right to. I think a girl with her attitude deserves something better.”
“You think Penrose should have paid him what he asked? Is that what you’d have done?”
Nicholas shook his head. “No. I’d have beaten the living shit out of him for daring to put his hands on my daughter and made sure he knew I’d do it again if he opened his mouth about it. But don’t ask me, sir, I’m an army man, we always resort to violence.”
Arnold laughed aloud. “Might have been better for the girl. It’s odd. I look at you and I see a well brought up lad with good manners and a nice attitude and I can’t for the life of me imagine you killing anybody.”
“Can’t you?” Nicholas drained his glass and got up. “Well I have, sir. Hope never to have to do it again, but I’m not sure I’d see the likes of Seymour as a great loss to the world. It’s a shame he’s in the dragoons. I’d like to see him serving under my old commander for a week or two.”
“Oh he wouldn’t last any longer, the general would have killed him. Thank you for this. Are you sure I’m all right to bring her next week?”
“Of course you are. Get her a respectable abigail. And I’ll give some thought to how we manage to make it look as though she has a duenna. Good thing you’re at the Dower House but it’s still not ideal. Go and find her and take her shopping.”
Nicholas found Camilla in conversation with Mrs Cobb, the housekeeper. He had noticed before that she had very easy manners with the servants and with the exception of Mrs Hogan, the staff at Ashberry Hall had taken her to their hearts. Even the grooms had nothing but good to say about Miss Dorne. Nicholas offered her his arm with a smile.
“Come along, let’s walk down to the fair.”
The hiring fair was new to Camilla. She had heard about them, but growing up in London was more accustomed to staff arriving through the employment agencies which were springing up around the city. She looked around with interest at the different groups of people, men and women, who had come looking for work. The various types of labourers and servants stood together, wearing or carrying some item which would indicate their particular trade or skill. Shepherds used bunches of wool, housemaids a sprig of broom, milkmaids carried a milking stool.
“What are the ones wearing the ribbons on their coats?” she asked.
“They’ve already been hired. Come on, I said I’d meet Taggart over by the western bridge.”
(From A Regrettable Reputation by Lynn Bryant)
Jervaulx Abbey, Yorkshire