One Last Promise – Amy Corwin Martha

Studying her two sisters sitting across from her in their drawing room, Martha Stainton frowned and picked at the scallop of bedraggled lace decorating her black gown. They looked more like a trio of crows gossiping than fashionable young ladies as they waited for the news that their father’s burial service was over. Not that anyone had ever accused them of being fashionable, but at least they were usually neatly dressed in well-made gowns. Several pale streaks revealed that the dresses they now wore had been hastily dyed black and none too expertly, either. Martha rearranged the folds to make the splotches less noticeable and straightened her shoulders. Nonetheless, her thoughts insisted on returning to the less consequential topic of her clothing rather than dwelling on their desperate situation. No—not desperate. That is exaggerating, she chided herself. However, with both of their parents now gone, their lives were going to change, and she couldn’t help but think the changes wouldn’t be for the better. Her mind shied away from the future, and her gaze drifted once more to her streaked gown. The three of them were more like molting crows in their unattractive gowns than ladies in mourning. Shifting, Martha’s restless fingers plucked at the lace again as she swallowed back the sudden urge to cry. Her older sister, Dorothy, stared with unseeing eyes at the window beyond Martha’s shoulder, while her younger sister, Grace, chattered on about the shelves of plum preserves in their pantry. Preserves? At a time like this? Why preserves, of all things? Why couldn’t she sit quietly? The high, thin edge in Grace’s voice made Martha choke on another sob that she barely managed to suppress. Martha clasped her hands together in her lap.

Her fingers were cold and her palms damp. Her thoughts bounced around, searching for something to fix on to avoid breaking down completely. Glancing down at her lap, she chewed her lower lip, her fingers plucking at the thin fabric again. Black was not her best color—not that any other color was much better. The golden hair of her youth had faded into an indeterminate brown, unlike Grace’s curls, which remained a lovely pale yellow. Even Dorothy’s darker hair had attained a rich, reddish honey-blond that gave her smooth skin a pearly luster. Apparently, there had been sufficient beauty apportioned to the Stainton family for two girls to share, not three. Martha was undeniably plain, and she knew it. Certainly, she had regular features, and all the girls had blue eyes. Unfortunately, in Martha’s case, this pleasant familial trait was hidden behind a pair of round spectacles.

But, she absolutely refused to squint. So she had resigned herself to spectacles several years ago, just like the ones her father had worn his entire life. What was acceptable for a man, however, was unacceptable for a lady, assuming she ever wished to marry. Martha rubbed her hands. “Would either of you like some tea? I could go and make some.” Anything to escape from the stuffy drawing room, instead of waiting there for the vicar like a pile of limp linens awaiting the laundress. “We should wait for the vicar,” Dorothy replied firmly. With a jerk she straightened and lifted her head. “Someone is on the walkway—I heard someone.” Face suddenly crumpling, Grace sniffed and pressed a black-edged handkerchief to the corners of her eyes.

Her voice shook as she said, “It must be the vicar. Perhaps we ought to ring for the tea?” She gazed at Martha with a tremulous smile, tears bedewing the golden lashes framing her bright blue eyes. Martha stood. They could ring all they wanted, but Martha would still have to go to the kitchen to assemble a tray, with the assistance of their cook. Even before their father passed away, they’d had to let most of their servants go, leaving just the cook, a man-of-all-work, and a charwoman. But somehow, Grace remained happily oblivious to the more tedious details involved in running the house. Although to be fair, she did help a great deal with incessant dusting. Catching Dorothy’s enquiring gaze, Martha shook her head. There was no need for both of them to traipse down to the kitchen, and other tasks would require Dorothy’s attention. Rap, rap, rap.

Such as answering the door. Dorothy nodded and rose while Grace smiled happily at both of them, gave a watery sniff, and settled more firmly into her padded chair. Martha smiled over her shoulder at her younger sister. Truly, it was hard to be annoyed with Grace when she was always so cheerful. Her warm smile was so infectious and, despite herself, Martha found her grief less overwhelming as she left the room. A smile of her own played over her lips as she headed for the servants’ stairs leading down to the kitchen. Hand hesitating over the jar of once-used tea leaves, Martha pressed her lips into a firm line and picked up the jar of fresh leaves, instead. They could afford a pot of strong tea once in a while, and today certainly demanded something to give them a bit more life. Life… She choked and swallowed as she rinsed the stout china pot with boiling water before scooping out a generous portion of tea leaves and filling the pot again. After a quick glance at Martha, their cook arranged slivers of pound cake on two plates.

Martha collected serviettes, silverware, a small china pitcher of milk, sugar, and other necessary accoutrements and arranged everything on a large, wooden tray. Sighing, Martha studied the assembled tea things before she picked up the tray. “We’re all sorry, Miss Martha,” their cook, Mrs. Collicott, said as she wiped her rough but capable hands on her damp apron. Her reddened eyes stared at Martha bleakly. “Thank you, Mrs. Collicott,” Martha replied, hesitating near the door, trying to avoid the question in the cook’s gaze. What’s to become of us? she seemed to ask. Everyone had the same question, the same concern. But there was really no answer.

At least, no cheerful, reassuring answer. Mrs. Collicott chewed on her lower lip and twisted the hem of her apron in her hands. “Is there any word from Mr. Stainton?” “My uncle will be arriving soon, I’m sure.” Martha’s hands tightened on the tray. She forced a smile. “You need not worry. His family will require a cook, and you are the best in all of Kent. And with three girls, four boys, and his wife—who is much enamored of entertaining—you will be kept very busy.

” A few of the worried lines on Mrs. Collicott’s broad face smoothed out, but anxious shadows still darkened her eyes. “You girls—” “Everything shall work out. You’ll see,” Martha assured her as she escaped from the comforting familiarity of the kitchen. There was no doubt that everything would work out, at least for her uncle and his large family. However, the future seemed far less rosy for the Stainton sisters. Before his death, her father had confessed that the house and everything they owned were to go to his younger brother, their Uncle Timothy. There would be very little left for the three girls—but he was sure the Staintons would rally around them until they could be settled with husbands. However, he’d forgotten that Uncle Timothy’s wife, Sarah, did not care overmuch for her nieces. After all, what could three humble, unwed girls do for her social aspirations? Not to mention Martha’s weak eyes and bluestocking tendencies, which made her even more of a hindrance, as Aunt Sarah never failed to point out in sorrowful, I’m-only-trying-to-help tones.

Martha shook off the thoughts and straightened her shoulders before she briskly entered the drawing room. The vicar, Mr. Wolstenholme, had indeed arrived. He sat perched on the edge of his chair, clasping a Bible. The well-worn, black-bound volume had a dozen or more scraps of paper sticking out from between the pages, no doubt marking passages to which he would refer during his visit. Unlike most vicars with a handy curate to order about, Mr. Wolstenholme took his duties to the members of his parish very seriously and was nothing if not well-prepared. His curate, the young and attractive Mr. Blyth, was no doubt left behind, assigned to more mundane tasks at the church. When he noticed her enter, he leapt to his feet, although he failed to offer any assistance with the heavy tray.

“Miss Martha, I hope you are doing well. I am here to offer my condolences.” His thin fingers twitched over the cover of his Bible and felt for one of the paper bookmarks. “As Thessalonians assures us, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” “Yes, indeed, Mr. Wolstenholme,” Dorothy said, interrupting him as she bent over the low, maple table to help Martha arrange the tea things. “We are very grateful to you for your thoughtfulness.” She caught Martha’s gaze and grimaced. “You will also be gratified to know that there were a great many gentlemen at the services for your father. He was very well-liked in the village.

” He shook his head, his fingers running over the edges of his Bible again. “He will be greatly missed, but as Revelations—” “Mr. Wolstenholme, will you not have a seat?” Martha asked, waving at his chair. “Indeed. Of course.” The vicar sat primly, his feet placed together on the floor, his Bible pressed against his knees. “Would you like a cup of tea?” Dorothy picked up the teapot and held it over one of the goldrimmed cups. “Thank you, Miss Stainton. That would be very much appreciated.” He smiled, and after glancing around, he placed his Bible on the small, round table next to him.

“And a slice of cake?” Grace offered, holding up the plate. “Yes, thank you.” He accepted both the cup and plate with an appreciative smile on his thin face. Everyone knew that the vicar’s cook only rarely managed to make a meal that wasn’t burnt or half-raw. Despite her shortcomings, the vicar kept her on, however, and he made the best of any opportunity presented to him to sample delicacies that weren’t crusted over with dark carbonized spots or oozing unbaked batter. Eyeing the other slices of pound cake, he finished his portion and delicately wiped the crumbs off his mouth with a serviette. “It is always best to face our situation and accept it.” His gaze strayed from the plate of cakes to his Bible and then back. Martha caught Dorothy’s nervous gaze. Her sister’s mouth tightened, and she gave a minute shake of the head.

One of them really wanted to face their situation. Martha’s hands tightened around her rapidly cooling cup of tea. All she could think of was Aunt Sarah and her humiliating remarks about Martha’s spectacles. “Would you care for another slice of pound cake, Mr. Wolstenholme? Mrs. Collicott has made an enormous quantity, and it will only grow stale if it is not eaten.” Grace held out the plate to the vicar. His fingers fluttered in his lap before he nodded, his hazel eyes brightening. “Yes, indeed. Thank you, Miss Grace.

” He helped himself to a large slice. Between tidy bites, he resolutely continued to speak. “I have been concerned about the three of you ever since your father fell ill during the winter. I therefore took the liberty of corresponding with Mr. Stainton and your aunt, Mrs. Polkinghorne. As you know, Mr. Stainton has a large family, and although he is willing to provide for you, I am afraid that supporting three additional members would be quite beyond his means.” He swallowed another piece of cake and wiped his mouth. “Certainly, the expense of providing opportunities for you to contract marriages, as you must do, would be out of the question for him.

” He placed his empty plate on the table in front of him and picked up his Bible, turning to one of the bookmarked places. “As it says in Corinthians, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” He closed the book and stared earnestly at each of them. “But you must not despair for your futures. As I mentioned, I have also corresponded with your aunt, Mrs. Polkinghorne. She is pleased to offer you a place in her household, and as she has a home near Grosvenor Square, I agreed that it would be the best course for you to pursue.” Aunt Mary? Martha caught Dorothy’s appalled gaze. They had spent a summer with their aunt when they were younger, and the visit was not a cherished memory. Aunt Mary had allocated one room for the three of them, and they’d spent their time in the sweltering attic sewing room, mending and making gowns for their aunt as a trio of unpaid seamstresses.

No doubt Aunt Mary would truly make the best use of their talents now to sew gowns for herself and her seventeen-year-old daughter. As for providing opportunities for the Stainton girls to meet eligible men, well, that might prove a little difficult if the three girls spent all their time in the sewing room under the eaves. “Grosvenor Square?” Grace clasped her hands together over her heart, her blue eyes glowing. “She is going to present us? Oh, how wonderful! I am so grateful to you, Mr. Wolstenholme.” The vicar flushed and took a sip of his tea. “Yes, well, I was only performing my duty, Miss Grace.” With a regretful glance at the remaining slice of cake, he rose. “If you will excuse me, ladies, I must leave you. I have other pressing duties, as I am sure you are aware.

” The three girls rose as well. “Of course.” Dorothy stepped toward the door. “We are grateful for your visit, Mr. Wolstenholme, and your concern for our future.” He nodded and walked toward the front door. “I regret that I could not do more.” “You have done quite enough,” Martha assured him as she held the door open. “We could not ask for more.” And wouldn’t, even if we could.

Well, his news wasn’t really tragic, at least for her. She never really expected to marry, considering her lack of both fortune and beauty, but she had hoped that her sisters might be fortunate enough to marry well. If they went to London, they’d be trapped in that hot little room, sewing until all of them had ruined their eyes and were forced to wear spectacles, even the beautiful Grace. Her thoughts drifted wistfully to their neighbor and her childhood friend, Quinton Huntsman, now the Baron of Ashbourne. She considered asking him for advice—surely there had to be an alternative to Aunt Mary—but it had been months since she had seen him. He’d been granted the title and was busy trying to set his near-bankrupted estate to rights. It would be thoughtless of her to lay her troubles on his shoulders, as well. Closing the door behind the vicar, Martha faced her sisters. Her shoulders dropped as she let out a long sigh. “London! I am so relieved that Aunt Mary is willing to present us,” Grace said as she danced into the drawing room.

Her two older sisters followed at a more sedate pace. “I am not sure that is what Aunt Mary had in mind,” Dorothy said. She exchanged glances with Martha. “You remember our last visit, do you not?” Grace’s forehead wrinkled. “Yes, but that was different, was it not? We were not living there permanently, and we were very young.” “No, that is true. So this time, we shall be sharing one pokey little room and spending our days sewing for Aunt Mary. Permanently.” Martha collected the plates, silverware, and rumpled serviettes, piling them up on the wooden tray. Unpaid drudges—that’s what they would become.

She sniffed and swallowed salty tears, unsure if they were due to grief over their father’s death or frustration over their bleak future. Misery filled her at the thought that she could be so shallow. What a terrible person she was. “Oh, no. She would not do that, would she? Not if we were to live with her.” Grace dropped down onto a chair and stared at Martha. “I shouldn’t have said that, I suppose.” Martha picked up the tray. One of the serviettes fell off and fluttered to the floor. “Maybe it will not be so bad.

” Dorothy picked up the serviette and placed it on the tray. “No.” She straightened and clasped her hands, her chin jutting out at a determined angle. “No. We must make sure it does not come to that. Once we get to London, we must take charge of our own prospects. We must marry, and marry well.” “You and Grace, perhaps.” Martha shrugged, the dishes rattling on the tray. “No one wishes to marry a nondescript woman with spectacles and no dowry.

” Best to state the facts now and accept them. Dorothy’s mouth drooped as she studied Martha. “Perhaps if you did not wear them…” She reached out as if to remove Martha’s spectacles, but Martha jerked her head back and stepped away. “I will not squint—that is far worse.” She shook her head. “No. We must face facts if we are to improve our situation. You and Grace have the best chances for contracting respectable alliances.” “Well, if we do, you shall have nothing to worry about.” Dorothy flung an arm around Martha and gave her a hug, despite the rattling of the china on the tray.

“Indeed. I shall like it above all things to be the old spinster aunt in one of your households.” She tried not to sound cynical or bitter—she did not want to add grumpy to old spinster aunt. However, it was difficult not to feel… not precisely hopeless, but perhaps alone. Her thoughts drifted longingly to Quinton. If she could but see him, talk to him… She thrust the thought away. It did no good to dwell on such things. She had to accept her situation as it was. Her sisters might do well, even without dowries, but Martha had never been blessed by good luck. She never had been, and she couldn’t expect any changes now.

One simply had to face the facts as they were, not as she wished them to be.

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