Rules for an Unmarried Lady – Wilma Counts

Colonel Lord Quinton Frederick Burnes—Quint to his friends and to his family, except for his mother who used the more formal version of his name—rolled back from his half-raised position, resting on the elbow of his good arm. The other arm, still in a splint but out of the sling for the moment, rested across his middle. He had stubbornly held that position longer than he should have, and he could not stifle the groan that slipped out as he moved. “All right, sir?” His aide, Lieutenant Chester Gibbons, sat on a chair beside the bed, balancing the colonel’s travel desk on his knees. Gibbons and the colonel were of an age—early thirties—and they had been together long enough to know each other’s quirks, likes and dislikes, when to talk and when not to. At nearly six feet, the two were similar in height too, but there the physical resemblance ended. Gibbons, with red hair and a profusion of freckles, was a slim, gangly man who looked deceptively awkward. His colonel was a sturdy athletic sort with dark hazel eyes and light brown hair with lighter streaks in it from years under a relentless sun, first in India, then in Spain. “I’ll live, Chet. I’ll live.” Unlike those poor bastards we lost in battle two weeks ago, he thought bitterly. The Battle of Toulouse had occurred roughly a week after the abdication of the once insanely ambitious Napoleon Bonaparte—“Boney,” “the Corsican Monster,” the self-proclaimed Emperor of France, or “that upstart corporal with delusions of grandeur,” depending on one’s point of view. Quint’s point of view at the moment was decidedly sour. He lay staring blankly at cracking plaster on the ceiling of a house in southern France. The house, one of the finest in the town, belonged to the mayor who—as a Royalist rather than a follower of the deposed emperor—had willingly, if not enthusiastically, allowed the British Army to commandeer it for wounded officers.

Ordinary soldiers, Quint knew, were treated in the local cathedral. This information had come to him rather belatedly, for Quint had been barely aware of his surroundings for several days. He had survived nearly six years on the Iberian Peninsula—not to mention three in India prior to that—following in the wake of the intrepid Wellesley, now Duke of Wellington, and he had done so having suffered little more than what Quint dismissed as “scratches.” Now, here he was at the end of that long, long campaign confined to a damned bed for who knew how long! He considered the broken arm, despite its being his right arm, in line with those previous “scratches.” After all, he still had the left one, did he not? “You are one lucky devil,” the doctor, who had visited again only this morning, had told him. “That bullet in your belly ripped up a bloody mess, but at least vital organs escaped. Your pain is coming from the fact that I had to dig what was left of that bullet out of the home it had found near your spine. You could have ended up totally paralyzed—but you won’t.” “Well, there is that, I suppose,” Quint muttered. “But, how long, Doc? I need to be in England even as we speak.

” “I would guess that you will be the ultimate judge of the time element,” the medical man said. “When the pain allows you to walk about and stand for more than a few minutes at a time. I know you don’t want to hear this, but I’m afraid you are looking at a matter of some weeks at least.” This announcement had elicited another groan—this time of protest and frustration more than pain. That is, not physical pain, but deep, devastating pain nonetheless. Colonel Lord Quinton Burnes was the younger son of the Fifth Earl of Sedwick—at one time the “spare” as it were. Only days prior to his managing to get himself sorely wounded in that needless battle, he had received a letter—long delayed in transit—in which his mother reported the sad news of the death of his brother, Winston, the Sixth Earl of Sedwick. Quint’s brother and his countess had both died in a carriage accident during an ice storm in the latter weeks of the worst winter England had suffered in decades, a winter so severe that in February, the Thames itself had frozen over and all London turned out for a Frost Fair on the river. Frivolity aside, the weather claimed many victims, among them the Earl of Sedwick and his charming countess. Quint clenched his jaw and wiped his good hand across his brow.

All his life, Quint had loved his brother dearly. The two were not only very close in age— separated by only a year—but they were also close friends. They had shared a tutor and had gone off to Eton together and then to university, where they had shared quarters and a good many escapades in which it had usually been Quint who managed to save them from the worst consequences of youthful exuberance. No one—least of all Quint—was surprised that the Sixth Earl of Sedwick had named his brother Quinton to be executor of his will, and guardian of all the earldom until such time as the Seventh Earl—now all of twelve years old—should reach his majority. Moreover, there were six siblings—also part of the Sedwick earldom for which Quint was now responsible. As all this flashed through his mind, Quint did not allow himself to groan again, but he wanted to. “Read it all back to me, Chet,” he ordered, laying his head against the pillow and closing his eyes. “My Dear Mother—” the aide began, Thank you for keeping me apprised of matters at Sedwick Hall. Your decision to move from the dower house into the Hall in order to supervise matters regarding the children seems perfectly proper to me. I find it gratifying that I may rely upon you not only to keep me informed of day-today matters, but also that you will see to it that my wishes are carried out in every detail.

I am at last coming to terms with our loss. Win and I always thought that it was I, not he, who was more in harm’s way. Over some matters, of course, mere mortals have no control. I am grateful that General Browning saw fit to inform you personally of my being wounded, but you must not be overly concerned. My injuries are not life-threatening, [here the aide paused and raised an eyebrow before continuing] though I am as yet unable to walk more than a few steps. As you must know, the inactivity is driving me crazy, but I am assured that in another two or three weeks, I shall be able to travel to the coast and take a ship home to England. Overland travel at present is simply too dangerous through occupied France. (I must wait to see Paris again!) Your admonitions regarding my responsibilities to the new earl and, indeed, to the entirety of Sedwick, are quite unnecessary. Winston and I discussed matters thoroughly during my last leave. I am fully aware of my duties.

I shall be back in England and able to assume full control of the properties—and the children (all seven of them)—by mid-June at latest. I doubt not that Miss Mayfield is quite fond of the nieces and nephews she and I share, but a mere godmother is hardly in a position to make substantive decisions regarding disposition of the children. First of , they must all be properly educated for the roles they will eventually assume in English society. As the heir, Phillip, especially, should have gone of to Eton at least a year ago and the twins are now of an age to accompany him. The girls, too, need more formal training, I think, than they have heretofore had. Meanwhile, Miss Mayfield’s suggestion of taking the children to London seems most unwise to me, but for the nonce, I leave these matters in your capable hands, Mother, until I return—very shortly, I hope. “Good. Sign it for me, Chet, and see it sent out in the next dispatch.” “Yes, sir.” Chapter 1 Sedwick Hall Derbyshire One morning in mid-May, the Honorable Harriet Mayfield was engaged in one of her favorite activities: entertaining and being entertained by her late sister Anne’s seven orphaned children.

Since the tragic loss of their parents nearly three months earlier, Harriet had consciously put her own life aside in order to fill some of the void in the children’s lives. She often felt herself woefully inadequate to the task. Having lost her own parents fully two decades earlier, she remembered well how an orphaned child felt: lost, anchorless. Just as she had had Anne to cling to, Anne’s children had one another—and Harriet vowed to fight tooth and nail any attempt to tear them asunder. The sixth Earl of Sedwick and his countess had not fit the “norm” of ton parents: they had actually enjoyed their children. Rather than consign the little people to the nursery and the impersonal care of servants, Sedwick and his wife planned family outings and made time for their children as individuals. Harriet had been forcibly reminded of this fact only the day before. Passing by the music room, she heard desultory plunks of random piano notes. She opened the door to find twelve-year-old Phillip perched on the piano bench staring into space. “Phillip, dear,” she said, noting his attire, “I thought you were out riding.

” “Changed my mind,” he muttered, not looking at her and hitting a loud note. “Why? You have always enjoyed riding, have you not?” She gathered her skirt in hand and slid onto the bench beside him. He moved over slightly and looked up at her, hazel eyes full of anguish. “Used to. It’s not the same without Papa.” She put a comforting arm around his narrow shoulders. “I know, darling. Nothing is the same. But we must carry on, regardless.” He shrugged her arm off.

“I do not want to ‘carry on.’! I do not want to b-be S-Sedwick. Everyone calls me ‘Sedwick.’ That is Papa—not me! I am Ph-Phillip, Viscount Trailson. I hate being Sedwick!” His outburst ended on a sob. Hesitating to touch him again, she sat quietly sharing his space, sharing his pain. Then she said softly, “I miss them too. Terribly. But, Phillip, you are the Earl of Sedwick now—and I think your papa would be very, very proud to know that you will take his place.” He gazed up at her.

“D-do y-you really th-think so, Aunt Harriet?” “Yes, darling, I truly do. And it would break his heart to see you give up things you love. Things he loved and that you enjoyed with him.” He drew in a deep, shuddering breath. After a moment, she patted his shoulder. “How about you allow me a few minutes to change into a riding habit and I shall meet you at the stable? You and I will go riding. All right?” “All right,” he agreed reluctantly. He managed to rally to the point that before their ride was finished, he was regaling her with anecdotes of rides he and his father had enjoyed together. Nor had that been the only instance of the children’s grief manifesting itself. The nursery servants had reported irritability and sleeplessness.

Harriet herself had noted a certain clinginess—as though the children feared letting the adults in their lives out of their sight. Lately, though, she welcomed signs of improvement, of matters settling into a new normal. She absolutely adored these younger members of her family—nor did she resent for a moment helping them cope with the cataclysmic changes in their lives. She remembered adjusting to such loss. She said a prayer of thanksgiving that at least Anne’s children had not lost their childhood home as well. For a moment an image flashed into her mind: two young girls, aged twelve and seven, uprooted from a comfortable home in the country and summarily shipped off to live in the largest city in the nation with grandparents they scarcely knew. The new Baron Ralston had been eager to take over the title and such entailed properties as accompanied it. He was quite content that guardianship of his predecessor’s daughters lay with their maternal grandparents. Only as an adult had Harriet learned to appreciate the fact that, aside from the entailed properties, her father had been independently wealthy—and that his legacy, along with her mother’s marriage settlements, had made the orphaned Anne and Harriet acknowledged heiresses. That bit of information might well have been a factor in the Sixth Earl of Sedwick’s initial pursuit of the lovely Anne when she made her debut, but it quickly became apparent that his lordship was “absolutely besotted,” as the saying went.

Anne had been a social success during her coming out—a “diamond of the first water”—but a few years later, when Harriet made her own debut along with her friends Henrietta and Hero, Harriet had found herself decidedly on the sidelines: None of the “Hs” had “taken” that year—not that they had been overly concerned about that turn of affairs. In general, the three of them found the antics of the ton a source of amusement; they refused to take seriously a young woman’s primary mission in life —the hunt for a husband. Even now, dangerously near to being “on the shelf,” none of the three greeted her unmarried status with more than a bit of a shrug. Lady Henrietta—Retta—devoted much of her time to a London charity for abused women and abandoned children. Hero had for several years been a true assistant in all but name to her respected physician father in Cornwall. And the truth was that Harriet also had a life of her own to which she felt pressed to return. Taking a cool writer’s view of the current matter—for that is what she was: a writer—Harriet poured out her thoughts in letters to her erstwhile school friends Retta and Hero. Even for adults, she wrote, mourning takes a deal out of one. Sadness and regret are understandable, but one is hardly prepared for the anger—the resentment—that accompanies grief! Adults manage to cope, but children flounder terribly with these emotions. Sometimes all you can do is hold the little ones close and murmur meaningless words of comfort, and hope that they do indeed of er comfort.

On a positive note: children are resilient. And I am hoping a change of scene may hasten their healing… So on that May morning, Harriet was once again devoting herself to her sister’s children. She sat on the floor of the nursery playing jackstraws with the blond, eight-year-old twins, Richard and Robert—“Ricky” and “Robby” to the nursery set—and their six-year-old sister, Sarah, whose hair was almost as dark as her Aunt Harriet’s, her eyes the same blue-gray. This game, as usual, was marked by an abundance of giggles and merriment. Also as usual thirteen-year-old Maria sat on a couch nearby with her head in a book, one hand toying with a loose strand of light brown hair. Phillip, still seeming too young and too slight to wear the heavy title Earl of Sedwick with which he had been so suddenly burdened, was idly spinning a huge globe that was a permanent fixture in the nursery’s schoolroom-playroom. At a table nearby, one of the two servants regularly assigned to the nursery set was trying to feed the youngest, two-year-old Matilda. Tilly, determined to do the deed herself, kept grabbing the spoon, and thus ended up wearing as much of her porridge as she ingested. As Harriet tried carefully to free one of the sticks of the game from the pile in front of her, she felt a pudgy little hand on her cheek. “It isn’t true, is it, Auntie Harry?” She drew four-year-old Elinor into the circle of her arm and gave up her turn at the game.

She nuzzled the little girl’s blonde curls. “What, Elly? Isn’t what true?” “What Ricky says.” “What does Ricky say?” Elly emitted an exasperated sigh. “Ricky says we are goin’ to Lunnon.” The room went quiet and Harriet could tell that this topic was not a surprise to the group. “Ricky, did you say that?” Harriet asked, stalling for time. She was not surprised the cat was out of the bag, but she had thought to have matters more settled before informing the children of the possibility of a trip to London. Ricky had jumped up from being on his knees on the floor. He looked down at his feet. “Uh— well—I—uh—heard the footman Tom talkin’ with Nurse Tavenner an’—” “Oh, Miss Harriet, I never said—” the nurse called from the table where she was feeding the toddler.

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