Chapter Thirty-Four: Part 1

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Sally missed the rest of the Season, retreating to Winds' Gate with the dowager duchess. Winds' Gate was the chief seat of the Winshires, and Grandmama was happy to be there, where she had so many memories of her beloved husband.

Grandmama spent her days lost in those memories, drifting away in the middle of conversations and forgetting to eat unless reminded. The new duchess, of course, was fully occupied in London, and on the other Winshire estates, moving smoothly into the role formerly held by her husband's stepmother.

The family was amazed to discover all the other activities that Grandmama had quietly managed. They split the work between them, the women dividing sponsorship and oversight of a myriad of charities, Mama keeping up Grandmama's social correspondence, and Papa taking over her financial and business interests.

Sally gave up any hope of a private letter to Toad, and attended to the grieving widow, listening to her stories about the duke, coaxing her out for walks, and reminding her of the food in front of her.

Various family members suggested that others could take a turn supporting Grandmama, but Sally resisted any attempts to displace her at Grandmama's side and send her back into the meaningless social whirl. Feeling useful was a heady sensation, and distance from her pack of importunate suitors was an added attraction.

All the people with whom Sally actually wanted to spend time came to Wind's Gate. The Winderfields, Grenfords, Wakefields, and other family connections sent an endless succession of visitors, and they sat five or six to table most nights, with up to twenty at times.

Wind's Gate was enormous, though it had started modestly enough with a Norman border keep. The Tudor manor tucked neatly against it witnessed to more settled times. Stuart towers and elegant Georgian halls more than trebled the size of the original buildings, and the whole was lavishly trimmed by Gothic follies—towers, windows, roof walks, arches, and other embellishments—commissioned by Elf's great grandfather. It was both grand and disjointed, seemingly the work of giant children with wild imaginations and an unending supply of multi-shaped coloured wooden blocks.

It fell to Sally to ensure that guests were appropriately greeted, given rooms suitable to their status and relationship, and fed and entertained while they were in residence. Elf—Sutton, he was now, though close family kept the nickname derived from his earlier title—came most weeks, riding up on the train, bringing presents for Grandmama and letters from most of the family, staying the evening then taking the noon train back the next day.

Sally read and reread the regular letters from Toad. Sent through Papa, they contained no reassuring statements of affection, but Sally treasured even his reports of his studies and the work he and his three friends were doing in Aunt Bella's shipyard. She slaved over her own responses, trying to make amusing stories out of the little incidents in her own, much more circumscribed life.

The weather continues fine, providing perfect conditions for the highlight of our social calendar, an expedition to the ruins of St Regis Abbey with the children from the orphans' home in Wingatt village. We were all delighted when Her Grace felt well enough to join us, and she and I took four very excited young ladies up with us in the barouche with their teacher.

Those with us were being rewarded for a sennight of excellent good manners and exemplary behaviour, so we had only the most demure and obedient of the girls, as Elf and Etcetera had only the best behaved of the boys. I am certain that the two more carriages followed, each packed to the roof with orphans under the watchful eye of their teachers were far more lively and interesting conveyances.

Had the letter not been destined to be read first by Papa, Sally would have told Toad her suspicions about one of the teachers. But she must be mistaken. Mrs Wright, impoverished widow newly come to serve at the orphanage while she awaited a blessed event, greatly resembled the elegant lady bird formerly in the keeping of Sally's cousin Longford, but what would such a high flyer be doing here, in Wingatt? Dressed in the neat, but hardly fashionable, green gingham gowns and straw bonnets worn by all the orphanage females, staff and children alike?

They thawed a little during an afternoon of roaming the ruins, followed by an impromptu game of cricket and finishing with an excellent afternoon tea. Sadly, overindulgence in cake was the undoing of one our passengers on the way home, but you will be happy to know that your Sally managed to get the carriage stopped and the child into the bushes on the side of the road before Grandmama was discomposed. I was quite proud of myself.

The orphanage was run along the revolutionary lines Grandmama and her friends had established when she was still the Duchess of Haverford, before Papa inherited the title. The children attended school and otherwise lived, worked, and played in small family-sized groups under the supervision of a single adult, chosen as much for his or her kindness as for other qualities. Grandmama's interest in the place revived on the day of the trip to the ruins, and she resumed her weekly visits, Sally at her side.

Grandmama also began to pick up other tasks she had abandoned when the duke died, in particular an extensive correspondence with godchildren throughout the aristocracy and gentry and across the globe.

The peaceful interlude ended in mid-July. With the first three months of mourning over, people outside of the family began to pay their respects. Sally ordered that the extra leaves remain in the large dining table, since they seldom fed fewer than thirty at a dinner.

And if far too many eligible gentlemen found excuses to call, at least the innkeeper in Wingatt benefited. Sally used her duties as Grandmama's deputy to avoid too much time with them, and made sure she never went anywhere alone.

One guest she was happy to welcome was Emma Fenchurch, whose uncle deposited her on his way to a house party that, Emma confided, he had described as "not the thing, Em, and I could go a lifetime without again hearing from the Duke of Haverford about my duty to keep you safe. You'll be right and tight at the Winshires'. Haverford can't take exception to that."

Antonia and Henry also came to stay, and if Sally had not already known Antonia was her half-sister, she would have found out when Grandmama commented on how nice it was to have two of Haverford's daughters to stay with her.

Emma was, however, was somewhat startled.

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