Killellan Manor, Sussex, November 1862
Unseasonal sunlight streamed in through the windows of the drawing room, causing several of those gathered there to squint and shield their eyes. It seemed cruelly incongruous since this was, by any definition, a gloomy occasion. Standing at the window, Mercy, the Dowager Lady Armstrong, usually the most observant and thoughtful of hostesses, neglected to signal to the butler to have the heavy scarlet drapes drawn. Instead, she continued to stare sightlessly out at the autumnal gardens, which were bare apart from a few leaves clinging on valiantly to the huge, ancient oak tree.
Like everyone else in the room, Mercy was dressed in heavy mourning. Her gown of plain black silk was unadorned with any of the beads, braid, swags or lace which her late husband liked to see festoon her toilette. Now that Henry was dead, there was no need to pander to his ostentatious tastes.
The man who had dictated her every move, tried to control her every thought, was gone. When it became apparent that her husband would not survive his brief illness, she had examined her conscience for any trace of emotion, but any affection she once had, had been eroded by the harsh reality of seventeen years of increasingly arid marriage. Now it was over, and she felt nothing save an overwhelming sense of relief.
‘They’re ready to begin,’ her brother Clement said, interrupting her reverie. ‘One last formality to endure, and then we can be on our way.’
He ushered her towards the waiting guests, his hand hovering protectively a few inches away from her shoulder. Knowing that Clement was desperate to support her in any way possible, Mercy forced herself to lean into his embrace for a second. ‘I’m fine,’ she whispered.
‘I wish I could spare you this,’ he muttered as he sat down.
‘You have been a rock.’ She perched on her own chair, noting wryly that they had been deliberately placed at a distance from those of Harry’s brothers. Major, Lord George Armstrong, her husband’s brother and heir, sat beside his younger twin, Captain Frederick Armstrong, the pair flanked by their respective wives. Harry’s identical twin brothers were very like him, with the same hooded eyes and determined chins. Frederick looked over, catching her eye, his mouth forming a thin, snide smile. Mercy shuddered and reached instinctively for Clement’s hand. Clearly surprised by her rare display of physical intimacy, he squeezed her fingers, smiling warmly at her, his smile reflected in his cornflower-blue eyes, his expression one of gentle concern.
At last, the lawyer cleared his throat and began to read. Mercy clasped her hands in her lap, and began to count the minutes until she could leave the Armstrong country seat forever. His opening words declared that this was the last will and testament of the late Lord Henry, known as Harry Atticus Percival Armstrong. The will had been written following their marriage, and Mercy had been unable to provide her husband with a scintilla of hope that there would be any need for it to be altered to accommodate an heir in the course of seventeen years. As the lawyer droned on about settlements and properties in which she no longer had any interest, the tears which had failed to fall upon her husband’s death now stung her eyes. She blinked them back. She had shed too many tears for the child she had desperately longed for, and for the pain and the suffering its absence had brought to her marriage. Harry had been devastated by his lack of a son. She had paid the price for that too.
‘Provision for my wife, Mercy, Lady Armstrong, nee Carstairs, is on the terms already specified in the marriage contract.’
Hearing her own name, she stirred herself. Not long now, she thought, anticipating that he would move on to the list of bequests for servants and distant relatives. But instead the lawyer cleared his throat, and produced a second piece of paper.
‘With regard to the provisions made for Lord Armstrong’s widow, at this juncture I will read from a codicil written by his late lordship a week before he tragically passed away.’
Mercy glanced at Clement, but he shook his head, looking irritated. ‘No idea,’ he whispered.
However, a glance in the direction of her two brothers-in-law gave her a horrible premonition, for both had their gazes fixed firmly on her. Years of practice allowed her to maintain a blank countenance, casting her eyes demurely down, but Mercy was now listening intently.
‘”In the eyes of the world, my marriage to Lady Armstrong has been an exemplary one, marred only by the absence of any progeny. The reality however, has been very different. For the duration of our marriage I have been a dutiful and faithful husband. No-one could fault my assiduous regard for my wife’s comfort and well-being. I wish it to be recorded for the sake of posterity, as I lie on my deathbed, that my devotion to the wedding vows I made seventeen years ago was not reciprocated by my wife, as witnessed by her obstinate and determined failure to provide me with an heir. While the law of the land prevents me from altering the provisions already made for her in the contract I so hopefully signed upon our marriage, it is my personal belief that morally she has no such entitlement.”’
A sharp intake of breath from all but the two brothers followed this announcement. Clement leapt to his feet. ‘This is an outrage! How dare you utter such slander, Sir.’
‘The words belong to my late brother, and as such cannot be deemed slanderous,’ the new Lord Armstrong said. ‘The lawyer is merely acting on my brother’s last and final wishes in reading them, Mr Carstairs. The codicil is perfectly legal and properly witnessed. It therefore forms part of the last will and testament and as such I wish it to be read aloud.’
‘Sit down, Clement.’ Sickened, Mercy grasped her brother’s wrist, tugging him back to his seat. ‘He cannot take my jointure away from me. Let him have his final say. The sooner this is over, the sooner we may quit this place, and never return.’
‘If you insist, though it goes very much against the grain.’ Clement glowered at the lawyer. ‘Get on with it.’
‘Ahem. As I was saying. “I spared no expense, and left no stone unturned…” ah yes, “investing a great deal of money and my own personal time escorting Lady Armstrong to various treatments, spas and clinics.”’ Here the lawyer stopped, flushing scarlet. ‘My lord, I really do not feel it is appropriate to continue. The content of the final paragraph is most personal in nature.’
‘My brother wished it to be read out in its entirety,’ Lord Armstrong reiterated. ‘I insist you continue.’
The look he threw Mercy was one of undisguised contempt. Clearly he had read the codicil already. She sat up straighter, tucking her hands beneath the folds of her gown out of sight, curling them into tight fists.
‘Very well, my lord, though I must protest in all decency that I do not – however, very well.’ The lawyer cleared his throat again, and began to read, stumbling over the words in his haste to be done. ‘“Lady Armstrong remained most stubbornly resistant to all ministrations. At the risk of shocking any of the fairer sex in attendance, I wish it further to be known that I have concluded the fault was not biological but one of the mind. As a husband, I know myself to be without fault, unfailing in my attentions to her, yet no ardour could awaken a womanly response, making it impossible for me to succeed in my most natural quest for a son and heir.”’
Mercy uttered an outraged gasp. Harry’s utter refusal to discuss any matter of a personal nature had made their marriage a sterile wasteland in every sense. He never accepted their childlessness, though the attempts to remedy the situation had become a grim endurance test for both of them. To have him accuse her like this from beyond the grave – and to have everyone listen, study her reaction, and worse, to know that was exactly what he wanted, was abhorrent. Did he really resent her so much that he must destroy the facade they had so painstakingly presented to the world for so long? Did he truly hate her that much?
Shaking her head vehemently at Clement, she dug her nails into her palms, outrage giving way to a cold anger. ‘Carry on,’ she said, glaring at the lawyer, who, under other circumstances she would feel sorry for. ‘I am sure we are all agog to hear what else I am accused of.’
The solicitor winced, muttered something which may have been an apology, and once more began to read. ‘”Behind the peerless beauty of the woman who was my wife lies a heart of stone and a body of marble. I hereby declare, in an effort to prevent any other man from suffering as I have done, that she is a disgrace to the gentle sex she purports to represent and not fit to be a wife. Lady Mercy Armstrong is frigid. Engage with her at your peril.”’ The lawyer set aside the letter with abject relief. ‘And here ends the codicil. I will now return to the remaining bequests, beginning with…’
‘Bitch,’ hissed Frederick Armstrong.
‘Barren bitch,’ Major, Lord Armstrong added.
A sharp silence filled the room. Shocked to the core, as much by the fury as the vitriol which her dead husband had expressed, his dying words redolent with emotions he had kept entirely from her when he was alive, Mercy got shakily to her feet. She allowed her gaze to sweep slowly around the small gathering before coming to rest on Harry’s twin brothers. ‘Whatever other faults I may have gentlemen, at least I am not a hypocrite. I do not pretend to feelings that I don’t have.’
‘You don’t have any feelings.’ Lord Armstrong got to his feet. ‘My brother…’
‘Is dead,’ Mercy interrupted him. ‘And you could hardly wait, George, for him to breathe his last. You were hovering over his sick bed like a vulture.’
‘I was there fervently hoping that my brother would recover. I did not see you in attendance. Why, when he first took ill, instead of nursing him as any wife worthy of the name would, you scurried off to attend a wedding.’
‘My sister’s wedding, which he wouldn’t have attended even if he had been in rude health and invited. Which he was not.’
‘Since you clearly prefer the company of your family to my own, I suggest you leave.’ Lord Armstrong snapped his fingers. ‘Immediately.’
‘I am more than happy to. I wish you joy in your new position, my lord.’
‘And I wish you all that my late brother would, for you, his frigid, barren widow. I believe…’
But what Major Lord Armstrong believed would never be known, for at that point Clement leapt out of his chair and landed him a vicious punch under the jaw that lifted him clean off his feet. The heir staggered backwards and then crumpled with a look of utter astonishment onto the drawing room floor.
‘I have been waiting a great many years to do that,’ Clement said coolly. ‘My only regret is that it wasn’t Harry. Shall we go, my dear? I had the foresight to order our carriage.’ Giving Mercy no time to respond, he took her arm and led her briskly out of the drawing room.