The Winds of Change

Chapter 1

August 1825

The silly fool is at it again, worrying about all the wrong things. 

John Smith shook his head as he contemplated his host. The pudgy little earl was fretting over the list of rooms his housekeeper had assigned to the guests for the coming fortnight. The huge mahogany expanse of desk made him look even more insignificant than he was. He should have had enough sense to get himself a higher chair. Or a smaller desk. Or both.

“Afraid Mrs. Timmons may have given the third son of a viscount a better room than the one assigned to the fourth cousin once removed of a duke?” He knew he should just be amused, but irritation crept in.

“It’s Lady Alice,” the Earl of Talmadge said in his plaintive little tenor. “Do you suppose she will expect to be given her old room? My mother has it now since I’m not married. Still, it was Lady Alice’s room when she was married to the old earl.” He frowned at the list. “But she is remarried now, and Mrs. Timmons put her and her husband in the corner bedroom, which is one of the largest ones. And Bancroft is only a distant relation of the duke, so that is really more than he could expect.” 

Dear God, the things these idiots consider important. If Talmadge had paid a tenth of this attention to his business affairs, he wouldn’t now be owing me £50,000 with no convenient way to pay it. And then he wouldn’t find himself in the uncomfortable position of having to treat an upstart muckworm as an honored guest. Smith smiled sardonically. “I’m sure Mrs. Bancroft will be pleased that her high birth gives her husband a better room than he deserves.”

The earl looked up and frowned. “Lady Alice. You must remember to call her Lady Alice. Her father was the Duke of Ashleigh, and now her brother is the duke. She is still called by her title even though she married a commoner.”

“I stand corrected.” 

The frown was returned to the list. “The daughter is a problem, though. Lady Clara might expect to be given her old room, but I don’t know which one it was. And I can hardly ask the servants.” 

Smith sighed. “Talmadge, you have been the earl now for how many years? Ten?” 

The earl looked up and nodded.

“And Lady Clara is now twenty-two, you tell me. That means she was no more than twelve years old when she left here. She was probably still in the schoolroom. Just put her in the room next to her mother.”

“Of course. I had not thought of that.” The earl smiled with relief. “And I see that Mrs. Timmons has already done as you suggest. The Bancrofts are in the corner room and Lady Clara is in the next room on the garden side.” He shot a rueful glance at Smith. “I know you think I am making a dreadful fuss over nothing, but this is the first time since her husband died that Lady Alice and her daughter have returned to Wharton Court. I fear it will be difficult for them, being reminded of what they have lost.”

“Livin’ in a hovel now, are they? Scrattin’ in the dirt for summat to eat?” He couldn’t resist slipping into the accent of his childhood.

Talmadge looked at him reproachfully. 

He shrugged. That could be considered an apology. For the accent at least. “There wasn’t enough room for them to remain here?”

“I offered, of course. But Lady Alice—she was still Lady Talmadge then—very properly decided to remove to her brother’s house.”

“And that was a comedown, was it? Going to live in a duke’s house?”

Talmadge flushed. “No, not that. But now that she has married a commoner, she and Lady Clara are living on the estate she inherited from her first husband, a very minor little place off in the wilds of Gloucestershire. I doubt there are more than a dozen bedchambers, and the park is nothing special. I don’t think it has been improved at all this half century. Compared to this…” He waved his hand. The gesture was intended to express the magnificence that was Wharton Court and a shake of his head commiserated with Lady Alice and Lady Clara on their loss.

“Ah, well, I fear I’d not have much to offer Lady Clara, then,” Smith said. “The house I built for my mother and sisters has only eight bedrooms, and naught but a patch of flowers by way of a garden.” He did not mention that it had a bathing room with a boiler for hot water so they could have a bath any time they wanted with no need for a dozen servants to haul buckets of water and that it had the latest by way of water closets. The earl was welcome to all this useless magnificence. He’d take comfort any time.

His remark earned him another reproachful look. “You know you could buy her any estate she would like. Chatsworth, if it were for sale. That’s more than anyone she meets in Gloucestershire can offer her.” There was a trace of bitterness in that comment, unusual in Talmadge, who was a kindly soul at heart. But he did owe £50,000. That had to rankle a bit. 

“I thought all you nobs spend the Season in London. Didn’t her uncle the duke dangle her in front of prospective bridegrooms there?”

“If he did, she obviously didn’t take. I never heard her mentioned by my friends, and I don’t believe I even saw her at any of the affairs I attended.” 

More like, her family never let her get within a mile of the scoundrels who hang about you, claiming to be your friends.

The earl continued, “She must be getting desperate for a husband by now, and her family as well.”

Smith grinned. “Desperate enough to overlook my complete lack of birth and breeding?”

“I didn’t mean it quite that way.” Poor little Talmadge looked embarrassed.

“That’s all right. I keep telling you I don’t want to marry the girl. I just want an introduction to her uncle. He’s the one with the influence in Parliament.”

“And I keep telling you that if you marry the girl—with his approval, of course—you’ll have his backing for your railway. It’s the simplest way.”

Smith smiled, though it pained him, and left the room. There was no point in arguing. Talmadge was a fool and doubtless always had been. If there was one thing he had learned, it was that there was no point in arguing with fools. You had to just go ahead and do what needed to be done.

In this case, what needed to be done would certainly not involve marriage. He was damned if he was going to marry some empty-headed little whey-faced doll to gain her uncle’s backing for the railway. But he was here because making the acquaintance of the family might get him an introduction to Ashleigh, and much as he resented it, he needed that introduction. 

Ashleigh was reputed to be both intelligent and open to new ideas. He would be able to see the advantages of a railway from Manchester to Liverpool, advantages for both rich and poor. Even more important, he had the respect of his peers, unlike Talmadge, who everyone knew was a cock-brained nincompoop. Ashleigh had the influence needed to get a bill through Parliament authorizing the railway. Someone of his stature was needed to oppose the Marquess of Stafford, who owned the Bridgewater Canal and feared losing his profits. An idiotic fear. Traffic between Manchester and Liverpool would keep growing in the years and decades to come, and there would be plenty for both canal and railway. Money from the canal would continue to pour into Stafford’s coffers. Unfortunately, a marquess wouldn’t believe that when John Smith told him so. He would have to hear it from someone like the Duke of Ashleigh. 

Smith’s mouth twisted. It gave him a pain in the gut to have to do things this way, to grovel before these nobs before they would let him make them rich. In a sensible world, he could write a letter to Ashleigh, pointing out the need for the railway, and that would be enough. Hell, in a sensible world, Parliament would see the value of the railway without the need for anyone’s influence.

But he didn’t live in a sensible world.

He strode down the hall, an eternity of a hall that would eventually get him out of this marble monstrosity. Even then, he would have to walk on rigidly straight gravel paths between hedges of finicky little shrubs before he could get near anything resembling the natural world. 

He would never understand why anyone wanted to live like this.


Clara stared out the window of the coach, thinking how odd it was that nothing looked familiar even though they had to be quite close to Wharton Court by now. Of course, it wasn’t really odd because she had been only a child when she’d left, and before that she had rarely traveled into the surrounding countryside. In fact, she had rarely been out of the nursery wing. 

No, it only seemed odd because she was so very familiar with Longwood and its surroundings. She could probably be dropped anywhere within twenty miles of her present home and know immediately where she was. Even Kelswick, her uncle’s home, was more intimately familiar to her, though she had lived there for only three years. She turned to comment on this to her mother and stepfather and realized another oddity. Her mother had not spoken in some time and was sitting very still, her face expressionless. For Lady Alice, this was extremely odd.

As for her stepfather, Stephen Bancroft was watching his wife and glowering. For such a good-natured and unflappable man, this was as odd as her mother’s passivity. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “You were neither of you happy under that roof and there is no reason for you to return.” He reached for his stick to rap on the roof. “I’m going to tell the driver to turn around and take us home.”

“No, Stephen, really.” Alice managed a smile for her husband. “I want to go. Truly I do. I know I thought I had grown out of my fears, but the invitation brought back memories, feelings I need to lay to rest. If we turn back now, Wharton Court could grow into nightmare proportions and have a power I refuse to give it.” 

He made an angry noise, more a growl than a word. “I hate seeing you afraid of a damned house.” 

Clara blinked at that—he rarely used profanity—but her mother smiled fully. “Thank you for that. I’m not afraid, not really. It’s more regret, regret for what I was when I lived there. Regret for what I allowed myself to become. But I am no longer the frightened sixteen-year-old child Talmadge married, nor am I the docile automaton he made me into.”

His scowl gradually relaxed into a faint smile. “Well, that’s true enough. If you were docile, we’d be halfway home. But the minute I see you unhappy, we’re leaving.” He turned to Clara. “What about you? I know you said you were curious, but is that all?”

She tilted her head and considered. “I think it is, really. I have few memories of anything outside the nursery and the schoolroom. And almost no memories of my father. Mostly what I remember is hearing about him. ‘The earl would not like that,’ my nurse would say when I was naughty. ‘The earl would not approve of that,’ the governess would say when I proposed something new.” She made a face and then laughed. “Was he really such a tyrant?”

Her mother shivered slightly. “Yes. Yes, he was. He prided himself that no one dared defy him. He thought himself a man of immense importance but, in reality, he was simply a bully. And for all those years, I allowed him to bully me.”

Clara was a bit taken aback by that. “I meant it as a joke.”

“He should have been a joke, but he was real enough.” Stephen spoke softly, but he was still watching her mother with a worried expression.

Just then, the coach passed through the gates of the entrance to the park and the house itself could be seen ahead. Calling it a house seemed inadequate. It was quite as large as Kelswick, but where the Duke of Ashleigh’s residence was austere in its magnificence, Wharton Court was opulent in its grandeur. Half a dozen Ionic columns soared up two stories to support the lavishly embellished pediment over the central block while shorter ones marched across the colonnades on the wings. Statues of warriors in swirling baroque draperies topped the half-dozen squared-off towers adorning the building. No window, no door escaped flamboyant ornamentation by the carver’s art, and the golden stone glittered in the summer sunshine. 

“Good God,” said Stephen. 

That startled a laugh out of her mother. “Thank you for that utterly sane reaction. It is preposterous, isn’t it?” 

“Who built this thing?” he asked.

“Vanbrugh had a hand in it. The second earl greatly admired Blenheim and wanted something even more impressive.” Her mother continued to look amused.

Clara suddenly felt much more comfortable. She didn’t have to feel in awe of Wharton Court, none of them did. Any sensible person would see the building as ludicrously pretentious. “We will exorcise all sad memories with laughter.”

They were still chuckling when their coach pulled up on the wide gravel sweep at the entrance to Wharton Court. Footmen in pale green livery trimmed with gold lacing swarmed out to help the visitors descend and to carry off their baggage. Clara was amused to notice that the gold trim matched the stone of the house. What an artistic attention to detail. Or perhaps more obsessive than artistic. She didn’t remember it from her childhood, but she might have forgotten it, or never noticed it in the first place. She would have to ask her mother.

Inside, the entrance hall had still more Ionic columns, these of white marble veined with gold, supporting the coffered ceiling, and an enormous winged staircase of the same marble. A smiling little man, rather oddly shaped—could he be wearing a corset?—stood on the first step, bouncing on his toes. He was too richly dressed, complete with a gold brocade waistcoat, to be anything but the earl, and her mother confirmed that by smiling at him and holding out her hands as she approached him.

“My dear Lady Alice, welcome back to Wharton Court. I am so very pleased to see you once again. And you are as beautiful as ever.” He clasped her mother’s hands and beamed. 

Clara could see why he had chosen to stand on the step. This way he did not have to look up at his guests.

“We were delighted to receive your invitation, Lord Talmadge. May I present my husband, Stephen Bancroft, and do you remember my daughter, Lady Clara Grammont?”

The earl and Bancroft bowed correctly to each other, and then the earl turned to Clara, who curtseyed very properly. “Lady Clara! You probably don’t even remember me. You were a mere child when last we met, and now here you are, a lovely young lady. I hope it will be a pleasure for you, returning to your old home.”

“I am sure this visit will be most pleasurable,” she assured him. He looked so genuinely welcoming that she could say nothing else. 

Moments later, they were being escorted to their rooms to rest from the rigors of their journey. Feeling far more restless than weary, having spent the past few hours sitting in a perfectly comfortable carriage traveling on decent roads, what Clara really wanted was a brisk walk. Unfortunately, their host had been so certain a rest was needed that she had found it impossible to contradict him. She hoped that in the coming days there would be enough guests to claim his attention and make his courtesy a bit less oppressive.

She could hardly complain about the accommodations. The room to which she was shown was both large and beautiful. The draperies on the two long windows and the bed hangings and coverlet were all of a deep green and gold brocade. The thick carpet was of a matching gold with a pattern of green leaves woven through it. Paler green velvet covered the armchair by the fireplace and the bench at the dressing table. A huge armoire was covered with carvings and gildings. She viewed it sardonically, and hoped her wardrobe would live up to its magnificence. 

All this magnificence was as oppressive as the earl’s courtesy. 

No, it was neither the magnificence nor the courtesy that oppressed her. It was the sameness of it all. The houses she visited, the balls and parties she attended, the plays, the concerts, even the people she met—they were all so much alike. Interchangeable. Boring. And inescapable. 

While waiting for a maid to finish unpacking her trunk, Clara stared out the window. The gardens below were rigidly formal, geometrical beds edged with clipped hedges imprisoning the late summer flowers that were wilting slightly in the heat. The park beyond looked more inviting, though even there the trees were drooping a bit. A gentleman was striding along the paths, moving easily on his way to the empty park. She envied him.