Susanna Halbridge fears her father’s death, not just because she adores him but because his passing will likely leave her and her mother destitute. Upon Robert Halbridge’s passing, Halbridge Manor will be by law entailed to the nearest male relative, a distant cousin named Edmund Kingsley. The entailment can be broken, and Susanna’s father agrees to try to get the rich heir to spare his wife and daughter. But when he dies before the meeting can be arranged, it is up to Susanna to plead her case.
Edmund Kingsley is a stern man and does not care for Susanna’s outspoken nature. He believes the headstrong young lady is in need of a firm hand, and with the heir holding all the power, Susanna is in little position to fight his attempts to tame her. Or is she?
Susanna Halbridge knew something was wrong as soon as she walked into the room. Her mother was always prone to histrionics, but on this day it was clear that her distress was far beyond the typical hand wringing typical of Margaret Halbridge.
“Mama?” Susanna laid the bundle of flowers she’d picked on the table and rushed over to where her mother was slouched in her chair, one hand across her brow and the other dangling at her side, clutching a letter.
Susanna took it, dreading that it might be news of her grandmother’s passing. The older woman had been sickly since winter, and the whole family had been preparing for dire tidings.
“Is it Gram?” she asked, afraid to look.
Margaret Halbridge took her hand off her brow and looked at her daughter. Her face was flushed and tear-streaked. “Oh, my dear, I don’t know how to tell you this, but it’s worse! William Patterson has made an offer of marriage? to Caroline Rothchild!”
Susanna said nothing. She could only blink as she reached for the chair near her mother’s and pulled it to her. She sank down onto the cushion, one hand gripping the armrest so hard that her knuckles paled. She dropped her eyes to the letter, needing confirmation that what she’d been told was true and not some dreadful mistake. But there, written in the same script she was so used to – the same script that covered pages and pages of love letters she kept tied in a bundle in her room, was a short missive informing the Halbridge family that he was to be married in a month’s time.
There was no mention of Susanna, no mention of the times he’d come to call, of the long walks they’d taken, of the pleasantries they’d exchanged.
“There will be a wedding at Bratten Hall before the tulips bloom!” her mother had proclaimed with glee the last time William had ridden away, tipping his hat towards Susanna before wheeling his white horse towards the stone pillars at the end of the lane leading to their modest but respectable manor house. “Perhaps we can force some tulips in the hothouse, so you can have them in your bouquet! Do you think you would like that, Susanna?”
Susanna had only smiled, too lost in the memory of the kisses he’d stolen under the arbor that afternoon. She was in love, and he’d confessed to her that he felt the same. Her modest dowry was not a concern, he’d told her. He would soon have a degree in law, a respectable profession, and they could live in London where he was guaranteed a position with a good firm. She’d waited for him to formally ask for her hand, but he had not. That was disappointing and frustrating, but she consoled herself with the thought that William was a romantic and was likely waiting for just the right time, or was planning to come back with some special gift to give her, something special to commemorate the happy occasion of their engagement.
“As a longtime friend of your family, I was eager to let you be among the first to know,” the letter said. “I look forward to the day when you can meet sweet Caroline, and wish us joy?”
Margaret Halbridge let out a horrible wail and threw her arm back across her face. Susanna rose, trying to be understanding of her mother’s self-absorption, given that it was she and not her mother, after all, who was the jilted party.
But Susanna bit her tongue. Margaret Halbridge was a good mother, and her sole mission in life had been to see her three daughters married off before the death of their father. Robert Halbridge had been in physical decline for two years with an undiagnosed illness that caused bleeding from his bowels. He’d nearly died the winter before but then had rebounded, though not completely.?
Unfortunately, now he was showing signs of failing again and the end could not be far off. The Halbridges were a respectable family, but not a family of great means. And since there were no male heirs, an entailment dictated that Bratten Hall would pass to the next closest male relative – a distant cousin, Edmund Kingsley.
“We’ll be penniless!” her mother sniffed. "Under the entail the property will go to Kingsley, and we’ll only be allowed a bit of the earnings from the estate. Kingsley is a man of considerable wealth and will not attend to such a small holding as this. It will be let, or will languish. And with next to no income we’ll be reduced and you’ll have no dowry fit to marry as your sisters have done."
Susanna said nothing, but only sighed and looked out the window. She was no fool. The Rothchild family was far wealthier and it did not take much imagination to deduce that William’s family had urged him towards a match with a young woman who had a substantial dowry and better connections. In retrospect, it had been obvious that Eliza Patterson had not favored her in the least. The few times she’d met William’s mother, the woman had been cold and taciturn. When William had led Susanna to the dance floor at the balls they had attended, his mother had watched from the side, tight-lipped and sullen. Susanna had told herself that this was simply the manner of an over-protective mother not eager to relinquish a darling son to any woman. But she knew now that it had not been marriage, but rather, an inconvenient one, that had set her face in stone.
“Can the entail be broken?” Susanna asked. It wasn’t her mother who offered the answer but her father.
“It can be if Kingsley is agreeable to the notion.” Robert Halbridge looked especially tired as he shuffled into the room. He sank into his favorite chair and sighed, looking up at his daughter. “But why this talk of breaking the entail?”
“Because of this!” His wife rose from her seat and stomped over, waving the letter at her husband. Robert Halbridge took it with a weary sigh. “That awful William Patterson will wed another, and not our Susanna! And after having misled her so!”
“Better to mislead a woman before a marriage than after,” he said, holding the letter at a distance so his tired eyes could read the contents. “Hmm.” When he finished he looked from his wife to his daughter. “Let this be a lesson to presume nothing about a man. Flattery and sweet words are worth nothing. Until a man makes an offer, nothing should be presumed.” He tossed the letter aside. “So Patterson marries a woman to boost his standing and passes over one who cannot. May their children, at least, be hideously ugly.”
Susanna could not help but laugh. “Father!”
But her mother was not amused. “This is a serious matter, Mr. Halbridge! You are not well and if you pass, then what will become of me and Susanna?”
“This answers my question of why the entail was being discussed.” Robert Halbridge folded his hands across his belly. “As I said, the entail can be broken. And it is to our advantage that what your mother says is true, Susanna. Edmund Kingsley is rich – very rich. Bratten Hall will be a pittance to him, and likely one hardly worth dealing with. If we prevail upon his mercy in this matter, perhaps we can appeal to his good character and urge him to waive such an inheritance that will surely be insufficient by his standards.” He sighed. “But such a thing must be done properly, and not by letter. So I will write to him this morning and bid him come visit so we can discuss it in person, as men.”
“In person?” Margaret Halbridge’s face brightened. “And he’s rich you say? You did not say he is married.” She reached for her daughter. “There may be hope for you yet, Susanna!”
But now both father and daughter were objecting at once. “Mama, please?”
Robert Aldridge said, “Kingsley may be single, but it is because he is a most humorless man. He’s practically a recluse and has sent many a mother into despair by barely speaking to the daughters they wished to present to him in what few social situations he finds himself in. He’s forever between London and one of his four fine estates. I suspect he finds society as silly as he is serious, and the young ladies too beneath him in intellect and fortune. Alas, my Susanna, even though you are a intelligent young lady, and fair, I do not think you could entice him from his solitary state, especially when his first introduction comes on the day when we beg him to forego the entail so as to not leave you impoverished.”
“One can hope, cannot one?” her mother cried.
“Not in this case, my dear.” Robert Halbridge stood. “And now I will take my leave to the library, where I will write this letter. I only hope that Kingsley will deign to respond in the affirmative. These proud men are often difficult to engage.”
Susanna walked over and kissed her father. “Thank you, Papa,” she said, and walked with him to the library.
At the door he stopped and turned to her. “Are you really so very sorry at being passed over by William Patterson? He was handsome enough, but never struck me as a man of will. And if ever a girl needed a man of will to match her own, it is you my dear Susanna.”
She smiled at this. Her father was right. Susanna’s older sisters were meek and manageable, whereas she was more inclined to give her own opinion.
Susanna had lost count of how many times her mother had cautioned her to hold her tongue. “Let the men have the opinions!” Mama had declared. “They do not want to hear ours. Opinions are something they seek to share over a brandy in the drawing room, not with the woman who will bear them children. From us they want a pleasant smile, an admiring look and a certain softness that is never threatening nor contentious. There is a word for women too unwise to offer such conveniences. That word,” she advised ominously, “is spinster.”
Susanna had wondered if her father was right. Had her outspoken manner factored into William’s decision to make an offer to another woman? But then she decided that if Robert Halbridge were right, perhaps she was fortunate. Yes, William Patterson was handsome, but she could not see living life as an accessory or an ornament to another.
“I will deal with being passed over,” she said. “I suppose my feelings are hurt, that is all. And my vanity, perhaps. But I am not the first woman to be passed over and I will not be the last. I do not see other women hurling themselves from bridges and towers for such slights, and neither will I.”
“That is good to hear,” her father said. “Because I would truly miss your wit should you decide to affect some dramatic death over something as trivial as that Patterson lad.”
Susanna kissed her father on the cheek. He gave her a merry wink as he entered his library and shut the door. As she turned away, a twist of hurt lodged in her belly. She could not deny that he was even more physically degraded now than he’d been only a week earlier. He was declining at an alarming rate, and although Susanna understood her mother’s pragmatism, she did not know how it could take precedence over the impending loss of the man who had cared for her and three daughters with such devotion.
She decided she could not deal with her mother and so went outside. It was a fine spring day. In another week her garden would be in full bloom. Susanna loved flowers and all around Bratten Hall were her personal touches – tulips, foxgloves, roses and columbine. She’d planted scores of flowers along the hornbeam hedge, and looked forward to the summer when the jasmine would bloom across the arbor and she could sit in the dark, inhaling the heady scent.
But what if the entail could not be broken and her father died? What then? She’d have to leave her home and would likely end up in some small, but respectable cottage with no decent garden or – worse – in town with no garden at all! The latter seemed more likely. If Kingsley wanted the place, her mother would be even more frantic to marry her off, and town would offer more possibility of introductions.
Susanna forced herself to think on other things. It would be a living hell, life in town with her mother thrusting her in every man’s line of sight. There would be enormous pressure for her to marry, and she did not relish suffering the same fate of her friend Winifred Dale, whose circumstances had closely matched her own when she was pressured to wed.
The previous summer she’d stood up at the altar, her red-rimmed eyes fixed on Phillip Bellington, a corpulent, retired naval officer with terrible breath and wiry, white hairs sticking out of his ears and nostrils. The groom, thirty years his bride’s senior, had unabashedly licked his lips throughout the service, his gaze fixed on her bosom. Susanna’s mother had later confided that Winifred’s mother had given her a dash of laudanum in her tea to help ease her through the nuptials.
Could she do the same, for the sake of duty? Susanna told herself she could not. But then she told herself that if she did not, she’d forever feel the unquiet ghost of her father haunting her steps, unable to rest for worry over his widow’s destitute state. Susanna knew she was all the things her father accused her of being. She was spiky, headstrong and obstinate. But she was a good daughter and she knew that her sense of duty would supersede any defiance in the matters of marriage.
She turned as she heard her name called. It was her father, driving the family’s trap. “Papa, are you well enough to handle the horses?”
“Ach, you sound too much like your mother. Don’t henpeck me, girl. Ride with me instead! I must send this letter today before it’s too late for the post.”
Susanna smiled and climbed in the trap beside her father. She knew if she asked him later, he would let her take the reins. She would pretend it was because she enjoyed driving and he would pretend he was not too tired to refuse her request, before indulging her, even as he protested in dramatic fashion.
Robert Halbridge drove all the way to town, which heartened his daughter. He mailed the letter and picked up a bouquet for his wife before being helped back into the trap. He drove until they were out of sight of town, but already Susanna could see him tiring.
“May I drive, Papa?”
This time he did not protest at all. He looked very tired suddenly and she helped him pull the pony to a stop. Susanna applied the brake and hastily got down and moved to where her father sat. He was breathing heavily, and very pale.
“Here,” she said. “Let’s move over.”
Robert Halbridge did not protest as his daughter moved him over to the other side of the cart. Once in the driver’s seat, she drove as quickly as she dared until they were home, where she yelled for the groom to come help him down.
The maid and the groom helped him into the house. Her mother met them at the door, sobbing that she’d dreaded that this day would come, that the trip to town had been too much, that he should have stayed, that it would not have even been necessary, save for the awful William Patterson.
“Stop your grousing, woman!” Robert Halbridge said as he was helped into bed. Susanna shot her mother a stern look and suggested she could help by having someone send for the doctor immediately. When Margaret Halbridge fled the room to comply, her father looked up at her. “Your mother is as stubborn as you are,” he said. “Although I’ve loved her in spite of it, she’s never listened to me. I can hear her nagging voice in my sleep on some nights and if I had my days to do over, I would have put her over my knee when we were first wed and spanked some obedience into her.”
Susanna laughed and looked up from tucking the blankets. “Really, Papa. Would that have been warranted? She’s your wife, not your ward.”
“A wife is a ward, of sorts,” he said. “A man cares for her and she is the embodiment of his ability to run his affairs. If she is sharp of tongue or a relentless scold, then society is likely to see the man as weak. If I had been stronger with your mother, perhaps I would have been more successful. And your mother would have been happier; for a high-spirited woman needs limits, and a man to back them up with a firm hand, if necessary.”
He looked up at her. “I hope you find such a man, not because you are a ninny, but because you are twice the woman your mother is in terms of stubbornness and five-fold what she is in strength, Susanna. A lesser man will indulge your stubbornness, or ignore it for being at a loss over how to handle it. A man of quality will attend to his wife’s disposition – with love, of course – but attend, nonetheless, he will.”
Susanna shook her head and smiled as she took her seat by her father’s bedside. “So it is your wish to see me married to a man who will punish me like a child?”
“No,” he said gently. “My wish for you is that you will find a man who will correct you as a woman, who will bring out the best in you, for it is the best of all women.” He sighed. “But I am tired now, and would rest.”
Susanna rose and lowered the flame on the lamp before exiting the room. Perhaps she would have lingered longer if she’d only known that it was the last conversation she and her father would ever have.