Lymington Park was not the oldest seat of the Bellasis dynasty, but it was unquestionably the grandest. They had begun their career among the landed gentry in a modest manor house in Leicestershire, but marriage to an heiress in the early seventeenth century had brought the Hampshire estate as a welcome dowry and the family had been glad to move south. A desperate appeal for funds from King Charles I, in the heat of the Civil War, had brought the promise of an earldom and the pledge was made good by the decapitated King’s son, when he returned in glory at the Restoration. Although it was the second Earl who decided that the existing house was no longer appropriate to their station and a large Palladian palace, designed by William Kent, was proposed. This was to be funded by some sensible investment in the early days of Empire, but a sudden downturn meant it never happened, and in the event it was the present Earl’s grandfather who had employed the architect George Steuart in the 1780s to design a new and grander envelope to be built around the original hall. The result could not be described as cosy or even comfortable, but it spoke of tradition and high office and as Peregrine Bellasis, fifth Earl of Brockenhurst, strode through the great hall, or sat in his library with its fine books and his dogs round his feet, or climbed the staircase lined with portraits of his ancestors, he felt it was a suitable setting as the background to a noble life. His wife Caroline knew how to manage such a place, or rather how to assemble the right team to manage it, and while her own enthusiasm for the house, like all her enthusiasms, had slipped into the grave with the body of her son, she knew how to make a decent show and take command of the county.
But this morning, her thoughts were on other matters. She thanked her maid, Dawson, as the woman placed the breakfast tray across her knees, and watched as a group of fallow deer moved softly across the park outside her windows. She smiled, and the strangeness of the sensation seemed to freeze her for a moment.
‘Is everything all right, m’lady?’ Dawson looked concerned.
Caroline nodded. ‘Quite. Thank you. I’ll ring when I’m ready to dress.’ The maid nodded and left. Lady Brockenhurst poured her coffee carefully. Why did her heart feel lighter? Was it so remarkable? That a little harpy had tried to blackmail her dead son? That this was the reason for the existence of the boy she had no doubt, and yet … She closed her eyes. Edmund had loved Lymington. Even as a child, he had known every inch of the estate. He could have been left in any part of it blindfold and found his way back unaided. But then, he would not have been unaided, since every keeper, every tenant, every worker, had taken the child to their heart. Caroline knew well enough that she was not loved, and nor was her husband. They were respected. In a way. But no more than that. The local people thought them chilly and unfeeling, hard and even harsh, but they had given birth to a prodigy. That was how she thought of Edmund: a prodigy, a golden child who was loved by everyone he knew. At least, that was how he had come to seem as the empty, lonely years stumbled on, until, with the varnishing patina of history, she came to believe that she, of all people, had given birth to the perfect son. They’d wanted more children, of course. But in the end, and after three stillbirths, only Edmund was left to occupy the nurseries on the second floor; yet he was enough. That was what she told herself, and it was the truth. He was enough. As he grew, the tenants and the villagers looked forward to the day he would inherit. She knew that, and told it against herself. He was their hope for a better future, and maybe he would have given them one. But now they had only Peregrine to endure and John to look forward to; an old man with no interest in life to be followed by a greedy, selfish peacock who would care no more for them than if they were stones in the road. How sad.
Still, this morning Caroline felt different. She looked round the room, which was lined in pale green striped silk, with a tall gilt looking glass above the chimney piece and a set of engravings on the walls, wondering quite what was making her feel unlike her usual self. Then, with a kind of surprise, she realised she felt happy, as if the sensation were so lost to her that it took a while for her to identify it. But it was true. She was happy to think her child had left a son. It wouldn’t change anything. The title, the estates, the London house, everything else, would still be John’s, but Edmund had left a son, and might they not come to know this man? Might they not find him and help him? After all, they would not be the first noble family to boast a love child. The late King’s bastards were all received at Court by the young Queen. Surely they could lift him from...