Chapter one of The Fortune Hunter

Published in 1991, reissued in April 2008 in Lovers and Ladies

"Great romance. Great Regency." Booklist

   It was a merry party in the kitchen of Stonycourt in Lincolnshire, seat of the de Lacy family. For once a generous fire was roaring in the grate, a chicken had been sacrificed to make a feast, and the precious store of medicinal spirits had been raided to make a fiery punch. The four young de Lacys and their aunt sat around the scrubbed deal table toasting their good fortune and making grand plans for the use of their new-found wealth.
   Stonycourt's two remaining servants -- aged specimens -- hunched on a high-backed settle close to the fire like two black crows, nursing mugs of hot punch but casting a jaundiced eye on the jubilation.
   "A horse!" declared Sir Jasper de Lacy, youngest of the family and yet nominal head. "A hunter. A prime bit of blood and bone."
   "New gowns," put in his twin sister, Jacinth, with a blissful smile. "Bang up to the mark and not home-made."
   At sixteen, the twins were still very alike, for Jasper was of a slender build, fine-boned for a boy, and Jacinth had insisted in following fashion by having her curly brown hair cropped short. She had declared that it was the only fashionable gesture that came free.
   "A Season?" offered the eldest daughter, Beryl. She added, in the tone of one who speculates on fabulous wonders, "Almack's?"
   Amy de Lacy, the middle daughter, smiled sadly. Beryl was one who dreamed of wonders, but always with a question mark after them. In truth, life had not served to raise Beryl's expectations. Though she had a sweet nature and a great many useful skills, no one could deny that she was plain -- the sort of lumpy, sallow homeliness which could not be disguised by discreet paint or a stylish hair-cut.
   As the daughter of Sir Digby de Lacy of Stonycourt and with a portion to match, Beryl could have expected to marry. That had all gone up in smoke two years ago when their father died and the tangle of bills and borrowings which had supported them in elegance had come crashing down.
   Amy had suffered on her own behalf, for it was not at all pleasant to be poor, but she grieved more for Beryl who was the kind af woman who should marry and have a home and children and now, doubtless, would not. Beryl was kind, skillful, and endlessly patient. She would make an excellent mother and she deserved a good, prosperous man to make her dreams come true.
   "That's right," said the older lady seated at the head of the table, merrily tipsy beneath a tilted blue-satin turban. "That's what's needed, Beryl pet. A Season. It'll be grand to be back in London especially now peace is in the air. We'll soon have you married, then Amethyst, then Jacinth."
   Amy winced. She had persuaded everyone else in the world to give up her ridiculous name in favour of Amy, but Aunt Lizzie would not be moved. "My dear sister chose your name with loving care, Amethyst," she would protest, "and I will not betray her now she is in her grave." Put like that it made a simple name change sound like a heinous sin.
   But since Georgiana de Lacy had taken it into her head to call all her children after precious stones, why could Amy not have been agate or onyx? Or sardonyx. Yes, she'd rather have liked being Sardonyx de Lacy.
   But she would much rather have been called Jane.
   She also wished Aunt Lizzie would not encourage the family tendency to flights of fancy. What else was to be expected, however? It seemed to be a trait which ran strong on both sides of the family tree.
   After all, Amy's maternal grandparents -- prosperous London wine-merchants -- had named their daughters Georgiana and Elizabeth after the famous Gunning sisters, clearly with social advancement in mind. In fact, they had achieved mild success. Lizzie had not married but the beautiful Georgiana had married Sir Digby de Lacy of Stonycourt.
   It was a shame, thought Amy, that this had so dizzied the Toombs family that they had sunk into penury trying to live up to their daughter's social heights. Some prosperous relatives would be very useful these days.
   The trait of impracticality was strong on the paternal side too. Amy's father had been a devout optimist and so delighted with his beautiful bride that he had been unable to deny her anything. He had extended his indulgence to each child without thought to his resources. They had been so happy, thought Amy wistfully, and the lovely home had frequently been full of guests and had rung with laughter...
   She would give anything to have those days back.
   "I don't think I would care for a Season really," Beryl demurred, colouring. "I'm a little old to be making my curtsey..."
   "Nonsense, pet," said Lizzie. "What do you say, Amethyst?"
   Above all, Amy hated being faced with the choice of supporting these bubbles of fancy or exploding them. The truth was that Beryl was too old, and that, plain as she was, the chance of her making a match in London was slim indeed, but how could she say that? It wasn't as if Jasper's share in a winning lottery could support such an enterprise anyway, and she could still wring his neck for risking his hard-won book money on such an idiotish enterprise...
   Everyone was waiting for her answer and so she said carefully, "I fear there simply isn't enough money. It's a drop in the ocean."
   Dismay wiped away joy. Lizzie opened her mouth but it was Jacinth who got in first. "Amethyst de Lacy!" she burst out, the use of the full name a protest in itself, "if you are going to be a wet blanket, I swear I will hate you forever!"
   Amy pulled an apologetic face. "I'm sorry Jassy, but we have to be sensible-"
   "Why?" demanded Jasper. "Look what sensible has achieved. We've been holed up here for two years like... like troglodytes, living from hand to mouth. No hunting. No dancing. No fun at all! It's only when I go and do something unsensible that we get anywhere!"
   "Fine," snapped Amy. "And how are you going to build on this? Spend it all on more lottery tickets? Or perhaps you'd rather take it to the races?"
   Jasper reddened. "I do seem to have a winning streak..." At his sister's groan, he quickly added, "But there's no need for that. We have five thousand pounds!"
   Jacinth cheered and offered another toast. Amy feared her little sister was on the go.
   "Jasper," Amy said gently but firmly, "your masters say you are very good with figures. How many hunters will the income from the money buy and keep? How many fine outfits? How many Seasons will it provide at the same time as it keeps up Stonycourt?"
   "To hell with Stonycourt."
   Aunt Lizzie gasped. "Jasper!"
   "Sorry," he muttered. "But, Amy, the money will buy a lot."
   "Not if you preserve the capital. If you can invest it to produce five hundred a year you will be doing well. That will provide a modicum of comfort but you should use some of it to pay down the encumbrances on the estate." Amy sought for a more cheerful aspect. "Of course, if you apply it all to the debt then it will mean less time until it is cleared. Once we have paid all the debts you can use the rents for income. We can slowly build-"
   "Slowly!" Jacinth burst out. "Slowly. That's what you always say. What about poor Beryl? She's twenty three! She can't wait."
   Beryl smiled sadly. "Don't you worry about me, Jassy. I know I'm not going to find a husband without a dowry, and this money can't provide one. Amy's right," she said with a sigh. "I'm afraid we're all going to be spinsters."
   Jacinth looked aghast at this. She had obviously never previously applied the family's straightened circumstances to herself. "Not Amy," she declared spitefully. "She has only to stand on a corner of the highway to have men grovelling at her feet!"
   The moment the words were out she looked appalled, clapped a hand over her mouth, and then fled the table with a wail. Jasper scowled accusingly at Amy then leapt up to go after his twin. Lizzie clucked and heaved herself up to follow.
   Beryl placed a comforting hand over Amy's. "She didn't mean it."
   Amy squeezed that hand but she said, "Yes she did, and it's true. I wish to heaven I was plain as a barn door."
   For Amy had the curse -- as she saw it -- of stunning beauty. Her hair was a glittering blond of such complexity of hue that the swains who regularly compared it to spun gold were not being as trite as it would appear. Her face was a charming heart-shape; her nose straight but slightly upturned; her soft full lips were a perfect Cupid-bow curved so that it was extremely difficult for her not to appear to be smiling. Her eyes were large and of a subtle dark blue lightened by flashes of lighter shades like a stream in the sun. Her skin, despite much time out of doors, was flawless.
   Amy was just tall enough to be called elegant and her form was sweetly rounded with a tendency to lushness in the upper part which she particularly deplored.
   Amy had never been at ease with her beauty, for it seemed to make people behave in very silly ways -- men ogled and clustered, and women were frequently acidic -- but she had borne with it until the family's plunge into poverty. Then she had realised how it set her apart from her sisters, just as Jassy had said. Amy would always find a husband if she sought one, whereas Beryl -- much more worthy of love -- was unlikely to, and even Jassy, pretty as she was, might fail without a penny to her name.
   So Amy had spent the last two years doing her best to obliterate her beauty. She had always had a taste for simple garments and after her father's death she had stripped them off all trimmings, and dyed the brighter ones into dull colours. Mourning had provided a good excuse and those which had survived the black dye vat had been plunged into a brown one with the explanation that it made them more suitable for work.
   "But Amy dear," Beryl had said, "I cannot see why a brown dress is more practical than a pink one unless you mean that it will not look dirty when it is. I do not like that thought at all."
   Amy had had no satisfactory response to that one.
   She had used the same excuse however -- their new need to do the work once done by a dozen servants -- to take to wearing her hair scraped back into a tight knot and covered by a cap. Beryl had found no logical argument against that, except that it was not very becoming.
   Amy had hoped she was right but neither clothes nor cap seemed to reduce Amy's quantity of admirers and Amy wanted them reduced to zero, for she could not bear to marry while her sisters were left spinsters.
   In desperation, she had made the experiment of having her hair cropped short like Jacinth's. That had been a disaster and she was waiting impatiently for it to grow. For the moment there was no question of confining it at all. It rioted around her head like a cherub's curls, emphasizing not just her beauty but a child-like impression she abhorred.
   "If you were as plain as a barn door," said Beryl with a teasing smile, "it would be even harder on us, dearest. I enjoy seeing your beauty."
   Amy squeezed Beryl's hand again, touched by the sincere words. Beryl had no scrap of envy in her. "But perhaps I am too serious-minded," she said. "Since we never expected to have this money, it would do no harm to spend it on fripperies."
   "It would do no good either," said Beryl, "except develop a taste for more. I'm sure you were right when you said it would be better to live very simply for a few years so that Stonycourt be restored." She did not sound very sure.
   "You are the oldest," said Amy. "If you think we should manage in a different way, please say so."
   "Oh no," said Beryl honestly. "I have no notion at all. Left to myself, I suppose I would have carried on as Papa did, had it been possible to get credit. I am good at finding ways to manage on less but I can't plan as you do, and figure out our finances, and how long it will take... It would all be too depressing." She worried a groove in the table with a nail then asked, "How long will it take, Amy?"
   Amy had done her best to be vague on such matters, and in typical fashion, the family had not pressed her, but she would not shirk a straight question. "Four years," she said, "if we're very careful, and rents stay high, and there is no disaster such as the roof leaking..." She stopped herself from listing all the unexpected expenses which could arise to throw her calculations into chaos. "In four years," she said cheerfully, "we should be almost free of debt and Jasper's income will be adequate for Stonycourt to become a proper home again."
   "That will be pleasant for Jasper," Beryl said, "but what of us?"
   Amy felt as if a void had opened at her feet. In all her plans and calculations, she had never looked further than her cherished goal -- to restore Stonycourt to the way it had been before their world fell apart. "We will live here," she said uncertainly. "There may even be a small amount for marriage portions..."
   But Beryl would be twenty-seven by then. Amy was suddenly aware that Jacinth was right. Beryl couldn't wait. "Perhaps we are holding too tight," she said. "We could reconsider selling some land and put the money aside for dowries. Uncle Clarence would approve that. He said as much."
   Uncle Clarence was their guardian, though he lived in Cumberland and paid little heed to their affairs.
   "Oh no," said Beryl firmly. "We agreed it would be disastrous to begin selling off the land. Four years is not so long..." She sighed. "I do wish we could have some real tea, though." She went over to the stove and spooned dried chamomile into the pot.
   Amy would have chopped her heart and put it in the pot if there'd been any purpose to it. "A pound of tea would make a tiny dent in five thousand pounds, love," she said.
   Beryl shook her head. "And gowns for Jassy, and a horse for Jasper. No, let's stick to our guns."
   Jacinth came back, accompanied by Jasper and Lizzie. "Oh Amy, I'm sorry," she said with a sniff. "That was a horridly catty thing to say."
   Amy went over and hugged her. "Don't regard it, love. The only blessing of having this phiz is that I don't have to look at it all day. I'm sure it's very wearing. But you see, don't you, that we have to be careful for a little longer so Stonycourt can be Stonycourt again."
   Jasper looked mutinous. "I don't think everyone's happiness should be sacrificed to a building."
   "It the home of the de Lacys, dear. We can't let it go, or fall down about our ears."
   Beryl brought the tea pot to the table. "Amy's right. But I think we should plan for what we are to do when everything is straight again. Jasper will want to marry and his bride won't want a house full of spinsters."
   Amy was touched by this sudden attack of practical thinking and disturbed yet again. Her faith in her own clear-headedness was being rapidly undermined. First she had assumed they would all be marriageable when their fortunes were stable again, then she had assumed they would all live on here happily as they had once done.
   "I don't want to marry anyway," said Jasper nobly.
   Beryl smiled gently. "Think of the succession, dear."
   He went bright red. "Oh, true."
   Jacinth looked resentfully at her twin. "But I want to marry. And what's to become of us if we don't? I won't become a governess or a companion. I won't!"
   Beryl poured her some tea and reverted to form. "You must look on the bright side, Jassy. It could all work out for the best. If you do have to seek employment, you and Amy are sure to attract the attention of the sons of the house and end up rich."
   Amy shut her eyes. Such an adventure was one of her recurrent nightmares but the outcome would not be as benign as Beryl imagined. Since their poverty had become known Amy had received a number of sly propositions.
   "I'm sure that would be very nice," said Aunt Lizzie doubtfully. Amy thought for a moment that her aunt was for once going to point out a folly, but she carried on, "I agree with Jacinth. Employment would not be at all pleasant and not at all necessary. A thousand pounds to each of us would be enough for us to live quietly in a cottage. Less if we all live together." There was a loud clearing of throats from the settle near the fire.
   The two old servants, Mr. and Mrs. Pretty, had been butler and housekeeper at the Hall for thirty years and when disaster struck they had been too old to seek employment elsewhere. When the other staff had been let go, they had stayed on, accepting room and board, waiting for the pension to which they felt they were entitled.
   To which they were entitled, admitted Amy, even if Sir Digby had neglected such provisions. Lizzie Toombs looked sourly at the couple but said grudgingly, "And doubtless a thousand for the Prettys. The estate should be able to bear that, and if Jasper marries an heiress we'll all be well set."
   "No, we won't!" cried Jacinth. "We'll be growing old in a cottage!" She looked around the table for reassurance. When it did not come, she burst into tears and fled again.
   "What's the matter with her?" asked Jasper blankly. "If I did marry an heiress I'd see Jassy all right."
   "I'm afraid that will be a while, dear," said Amy. "I doubt you'll be able to marry a fortune for a good many years."
   "Oh. Well then," he said carelessly, "I think you should. With your looks, you should be able to snaffle a duke as easy as falling off a chair."
   There was a silence. Then, "Of course," said Aunt Lizzie blithely. "What a clever young man you are, Jasper. We will use the money to take Amethyst to London. She'll be the Toast of the Town and marry a duke and we'll all be rich."
   Amy felt as if she couldn't breathe. It must be the punch. "But what about Beryl?" she protested, the first defence she could think of. "The eldest should marry first."
   Beryl laughed. "I couldn't catch a duke, dear. Nor would I want one. I'll choose a husband with a small estate, a man who stays at home..."
   She was off in one of her dreams. `I'll'. As far as Beryl was concerned it was as good as done. Amy slapped her wits back into order. Was it possible? Marriage was a way out of poverty, after all, and she would do anything to make all right for her family.
   "It would be madness to spend all the money," she said cautiously. "A thousand should be more than enough if we're careful. In fact," she added thoughtfully, "it may not be necessary to go to London at all. We live on the edge of the Shires and it is still hunting season. There must be many wealthy gentlemen in this locality. As Jassy said," she added dryly, "I have only to be seen to slay."
   "It would be much more fun to go to London," said Beryl simply.
   Amy didn't have the heart to tell her it would be far too expensive for them all to go. Beryl's words merely stiffened her resolve to try other means. It would be perfectly horrid to be gadding about Town while Beryl and Jassy pined at home.
   "If we are to do this," she said firmly, "we must remember that I will need to marry a very rich man, one willing to lay out a lot of money to bring the estate back into heart immediately and provide dowries for you and Jassy. I think on the whole I should look for an older man. A nabob, perhaps, or a wealthy cit."
   "What!" declared Aunt Lizzie. "Marry beneath you when your mother struggled to raise herself up."
   "We are not so high now, aunt," Amy pointed out.
   "You are a de Lacy of Stonycourt."
   Amy shrugged. "Let us hope that makes me worth extra at market."
   "But a gentleman who marries a golden dolly," said Beryl doubtfully, "raises her up to his status. A lady who marries a wealthy cit sinks down to his. I don't think you'd like that, Amy dear. You should marry the duke."
   Amy shook her head. "If one offers," she said gently, "be sure I will consider him most seriously. But we must be practical. Money is our main object, accompanied by a generous disposition."
    She summoned up a merry smile and raised her tea cup. "To fortune hunting!"
   Over the next days Amy marshalled her family like a general. Aunt Lizzie was set to writing to her acquaintance in London to discreetly enquire about rich tradesmen interested in marrying into the gentry. As Beryl had pointed out, such a marriage was not as popular as the linking of men of good birth with lower-bred fortunes, for it did not automatically raise a man up as it would a woman. But it did give useful connections, and the children could expect to step into the gentry class if they'd a mind to, so it had some benefits to offer.
   Jasper had returned to his school at Uppingham and was asking if there were any nabobs or such living in the nearby villages, here for the hunting. There was a degree of urgency to this. It was April and the hunting season was winding down as the crops began to grow. Soon all the wealthy Meltonians would be off to London.
   Amy and her sisters took to paying especial attention to local gossip but were frustrated by the fact that all anyone wanted to talk about these days was Napoleon Bonaparte's abdication. This wonderful news would normally have delighted them but Amy at least wished the dramatic events could have been delayed for a little while so that people would still be interested in the minutiae of local life.
   April progressed without anything being achieved. Aunt Lizzie received only gossippy replies from London full of plans for victory celebrations but lacking lists of wealthy bachelors.
   Jasper wrote that he had discovered there were a goodly number of avid hunters still in the area but the single men were all young bucks, and though well-breeched enough none were rich enough for their purposes.
   Beryl and Jassy mulled over the local residents with care but could not keep it in their minds that a veritable Croesus was required, and his looks or age were of no account.
   "There's that charming Mr. Bunting over at Nether Hendon," said Beryl one evening as they ate their mutton stew. "He's tolerably handsome and I'm sure he has a sweet nature."
   Amy forced a smile. "But if he has five thousand a year, I'd be surprised, Beryl."
   "Five thousand a year is a comfortable income."
   "But doesn't allow much for me to milk him of for Stonycourt," said Amy ruthlessly.
   Beryl gaped. Aunt Lizzie frowned. "Amethyst, my dear, don't you think that was a little vulgar?"
   Amy rested her head on one hand and gathered her patience. Then she looked up. "I'm sorry. It wasn't a proper thing to say. But there will be no point to this if I merely marry a man who will keep me in comfort. How could I live in comfort while my family suffers? So can we concentrate our efforts on finding another Golden Ball? Please?"
   From the end of the table where they ate slightly apart from the family -- by their own choice -- Pretty cleared his throat.
   "Yes, Pretty," Amy said.
   "If I may be so bold, Miss Amethyst, I do know of a very rich man in this locality."
   "There is a gentleman of the name of Staverley taken Prior's Grange in Upper Kennet. Talk down at the Jug and Whistle is that he is come from the West Indies very rich indeed and without wife or children that any knows of."
   "Is he young?" asked Jassy excitedly.
   "Is he handsome?" asked Beryl.
   "Are we sure he's rich?" asked Amy.
   "Anyone can be a trickster," said Pretty. "But it is the feeling of all that he's warm enough to toast with. Bringing in fine furniture, ordering all kinds of luxuries, hiring ample staff -- and," he added with a slight sneer which revealed long stained teeth, "paying on the knob for everything."
   "There's no need for that, Pretty," said Amy sharply. "We pay on the knob too these days. No one will give us credit. How do I meet this man?"
   "Amethyst!" cried Aunt Lizzie. "Do not be so precipitate. We must make the most careful enquiries."
   Amy opened her mouth to refute this but then closed it. It was clear that if anything practical was to be achieved she would be best advised to leave her family out of it. At least it seemed the Prettys could be relied on for help, even if it was only from self interest. No bad thing, thought Amy. Self-interest could generally be relied on.

   LOVERS AND LADIES will be out in April, 2008.

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