Authors: Poor Caroline
Copyright © 1995 by Paula Schwartz
Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved.
“There she is,” Lady Whitlow said to her brother, the Viscount Crittenden, in what was supposed to be a whisper. “Poor Caroline.”
Little Caroline Whitlow, twelve years old and benumbed by the sudden death of her parents and the abrupt disappearance of the comfort and security she’d known all her life, stood frozen in the doorway of the enormous drawing room of the Grange, the viscount’s country seat. Her mouth was set in a tight, stubborn line, and her head was held abnormally high. She carried her infant brother Gilbert in her right arm and clutched the hand of her three-year-old brother, Arthur, in her left hand—three penniless orphans uncertain of their future. She’d overheard her aunt Martha, and something inside her sickened. She hated those words,
She’d heard them whispered behind her back repeatedly since her parents died, and she knew she would do anything—
—not to hear them again.
Lady Whitlow glanced over at Caroline worriedly. She was very fond of the child, but she wondered what Clement would think of her. The girl’s attitude was prickly at best, an attitude not designed to endear her to a stranger or win his goodwill. And goodwill was necessary for a child in her penniless situation.
The three orphans were the children of her husband’s brother, Benjamin Whitlow; and she, the childless and widowed Martha Whitlow, was their only living kin, their aunt by marriage if not by blood. She wished the best for the poor children, but she herself did not feel capable of bringing them up. Though she was anguished over their diminished prospects, she felt helpless to do anything for them. She had no experience with children, and her modest town house in London was not adequate. She’d brought them here to the viscount, her brother, in desperation. She didn’t expect him, a confirmed bachelor, to take them in, but perhaps he might contribute to their support or have some suggestions as to what to do with them.
Caroline, meanwhile, stood in unflinching immobility under the gaze of the two adults. At a mere twelve years of age, she already had three pronounced characteristics that would stay with her into adulthood: a head of thick, curly auburn hair that she kept cut short; a pair of large, gold-flecked, speaking eyes; and an unshakable pride. Those qualities were immediately apparent to the aging Clement Meredith, Viscount of Crittenden. He leaned forward from the depths of his large wing chair and studied her with admiration. “Proud little thing, ain’t she?” he cackled admiringly to his sister.
“Yes, poor child.” Martha, Lady Whitlow, sighed. She stood beside his chair, still wearing her travel bonnet and cloak. “Too proud, I’m afraid, for her diminished position in life.”
“Nay, don’t say so. I like pride. You have it, and so have I.”
“Yes, it’s true. But you should know better than most that pride can be damaging. It has cost you dearly, hasn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you’re prattling of,” he muttered, his mouth hardening.
“You most certainly do!” his sister exclaimed. “Pride cost you the companionship of our brother and the nephew you were so fond of.”
“Never mind. Don’t speak of them,” the viscount said curtly. “I no longer think of them.”
“I’m only saying, my dear, that one can sometimes be too proud. In Caroline’s case, perhaps it would be better to have humility. The poor child, and the two baby brothers she won’t let out of her grasp, were not left a feather to fly with. My brother-in-law, Benjamin, had no head for business. It took every penny I could salvage from the sale of his house to pay off his debts. So what good is pride to these poor children?”
The viscount peered intently across the room at the girl standing in the doorway. Then a slow smile suffused his wrinkled face. “I like the little chit,” he chortled. “Look at the way she tilts up her chin. And how she glares at me, as if daring me to pity her. I like her. I’ll take her in, damme if I don’t! That’ll give her a proper position in life.”
Little Caroline, who’d heard every word, lifted her chin even higher. “If you want me,” she said loudly, “you’ll have to take my brothers, too.” Only a tiny tremor on the last syllable revealed how frightened she was.
“Come here, child,” the viscount ordered, beckoning from his easy chair with one bony finger. “Let me have a closer look at you.”
Caroline shifted the sleeping infant higher on her shoulder, grasped the three-year-old’s hand tighter, and taking a deep breath, started across the room, dragging the little boy behind her. As they approached the viscount’s chair the boy began to cry. “Hush, Arthur!” Caroline hissed.
Martha Whitlow frowned down at her. “Well, don’t just stand there, girl. Make your bow.”
The child curtsied. “How do you do, my lord?” she said with well-trained politeness.
The viscount, using a cane to help him, rose from his easy chair. The three-year-old, ducking behind his sister and grasping her leg, howled in fright, and the baby, wakening, began to whimper. The viscount ignored the disturbance. He patted the girl’s shoulder to put her at ease. “So, Miss Caroline Whitlow, even though you haven’t a free hand to offer me, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. This little fellow is called Arthur, eh? That’s a good name. What’s the baby called?”
“Gilbert.” She fixed her wide, frightened eyes on the viscount’s face. “They don’t usually cry ... much.”
“You needn’t look like that, child. I won’t separate you from your brothers. You’ve had enough of separation, God knows.”
Martha gave a little cry of gratitude. “Oh, Clement!” she exclaimed, throwing her arms about his neck. “How very good of you!”
“Nonsense. They’ll bring some life into this old house.” He hobbled over to the corner and yanked at the bellpull. “I’ll send for some maids to take the boys upstairs and set up a nursery,” he said to Caroline kindly. ‘Then you and Martha and I can have a nice, peaceful tea.”
“Thank you, my lord, but—”
“Who don’t you just call me Uncle Clement?”
“Yes, Uncle Clement, but I think it would be better if I went with the maids to help set up the nursery.”
The viscount shrugged. “As you wish, my dear.”
A few minutes later, two neatly dressed housemaids appeared. One took the still-sobbing Arthur in her arms. The other reached for Gilbert, but Caroline would not release him. With a quick bow to her “uncle,” the girl turned to follow the maids out of the room.
“Aren’t you going to thank your new uncle?” Martha chided.
Caroline turned, looked from one to the other, and tried to speak. But something stilled her tongue. She could only stand there and hang her head.
The viscount crossed the room and smiled down at the silent girl. “You know, little Caroline,” he said as softly as his hoarse voice permitted, “once you become accustomed to me and this place, you and your brothers will all like it here. I have gardens and woods and a lake and a stable full of horses.”
“Th-thank you, my lord,” the girl said, her head lowered.
He put his hand on her chin and lifted her face. “You find it hard to say thanks, eh? You don’t like to be beholden.”
“No, my lord, I don’t,” she admitted bluntly.
He threw back his head and gave a hearty laugh. “Neither do I, my girl, neither do 1.1 think we shall deal famously together.”
And so they did, for twelve untroubled years. And during all those twelve years, no one ever again referred to her as Poor Caroline. What’s more, she had every expectation that they never would again.
Expectations, however, often have an irritating way of going wrong.
Twelve Years Later
The letter from England, addressed to
Captain Christopher Meredith of the 4th Dragoons, Somewhere on the Peninsula
had taken five months to find its way to the proper hands. How it managed to track him to a lonely hacienda on the side of a sparsely populated Spanish hill he was never to discover. But it arrived at a most opportune moment. Kit Meredith, erstwhile captain of the 4th
Dragoons, was now an unemployed, bored, almost destitute civilian, and very tired of licking his wounds. He was more than ready for a change.
On this particular day, the day that was to bring him the change he so desired, he was desultorily digging out stones from the dry earth on the south side of the Spanish house, vainly hoping he could turn the small arid area into something resembling an English kitchen garden. While he worked, his mind dwelt upon his grim prospects. He wondered, as he always did these days, how he could possibly manage to improve the state of his finances, at least enough to get back to England.
He’d been badly mauled at Salamanca, where he’d taken bullets in his chest and upper right arm and had his left leg crushed by his horse when it had been shot from under him. For two years he’d been recuperating in this tiny hacienda in the hills east of Bejar. Thanks to the hospitality of the elderly Spanish couple who’d taken him in (in return, of course, for a generous monthly stipend), and the devoted ministrations of his batman, Morris Mickley, he’d almost completely recovered.
But two years on a desolate hillside of a foreign land—years spent, at first, contending with excruciating pain and later with the struggle to regain the use of his limbs—had taken their toll. He was often subject to feelings of irritability, or depression, or hopelessness. These moods were exacerbated by the constant uproar created by his host and hostess, whose dreadful harangues in loud, rapid, incomprehensible Spanish assailed his ears daily. The noise of their bickering, cutting through the somnolent, hot Spanish air, made him long for the quiet, cool green of England.
Only two things had kept him sane. The first was his batman, an utterly loyal, sensible, ingenious fellow whose companionship was food for a lonely soul and whose rich cockney humor was, to Kit, a cheery reminder of England. The second was his satisfaction at having managed to acquire, during these difficult months, four beautiful Spanish horses. The trouble was that he had no funds left with which to transport them—or his batman or even himself—back to England.
Now that his leg (the slowest of his wounded parts to heal) was finally strong enough to allow him to move about with a barely noticeable limp, he yearned to return home. But the recovery had cost him dearly. Every penny he’d managed to save of his captain’s pay and the small legacy his father had left him were almost gone. As were two years of what should have been his prime. At twenty-nine, he believed, he should have more to show for his life than four horses, a limp, and empty pockets.
Pausing in his labors to wipe his brow, he saw his batman, Mickley, come strolling round the corner of the house, the letter in his hand. “What have you there?” he asked.
“Dunno ‘ow this ever found ye, Cap’n,” the batman answered, holding it out to him. “It’s been everywhere from Vimiero to Ciudad Rodrigo.”
Kit took the letter and studied it with mild curiosity, noting that the seal had somehow remained miraculously intact. “Can’t be anything important,” he muttered, seating himself on the stone wall that surrounded the hacienda. “Now that I’ve sold out, there’s no reason for anyone to contact me.”
Mickley watched as Kit broke the seal. His captain was finally beginning to look well. The Spanish sun had darkened his invalidish pallor, and in the past couple of months he’d at last added some weight to his tall, lanky frame. The batman was about to say something about it when a glance at the captain’s expression stilled his tongue. The man looked stunned.
Kit had taken only one quick look at the letter, but that look caused his back to stiffen, his brows to lift in surprise, and the fingers of both hands to tighten on the single sheet. “What ... ?” the batman began to ask.
But Kit held up a hand for silence. His eyes gleamed with excitment as he read the letter for the second time—much more carefully now. “Good God!” he exclaimed at last.