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Ravenswood Hall in Hampshire, home and principal seat for a number of generations of Barons and Earls of Stratton, was the center of the universe to most of the people who lived within five miles or so of its imposing splendor.
The current earl, the sixth, was Caleb Ware, a handsome, vigorous, genial man in his late forties who was well liked by all who knew him, and even loved by many. He had done his duty to family, title, and community early in life by marrying the lovely and charming Clarissa Greenfield, daughter of a neighboring landowner of some substance, when both were very young. They had produced a family of three sons and two daughters before he reached the age of forty. The fact that his lordship had also fathered a son prior to his marriage, shocking though it was when it was first disclosed, was not ultimately held against him, for he had had the decency to acknowledge the child and bring him into his own home when the mother died three years after giving birth to him. The earl and his countess had raised the boy in almost every way as one of their own, and he enjoyed the affection of both.
Ben Ellis, the earl's natural son, now twenty-five years old, was the steward of his father's vast estates, having chosen to stay home and learn all the intricacies of the profession from his elderly predecessor when he might have gone off to study at Cambridge and pursue some other career. The position had been his when the older man retired. His father had even insisted upon paying him the same handsome salary and upon increasing it a year later.
Devlin Ware, Viscount Mountford, the earl's eldest legitimate child, was twenty-two. He had completed his studies at Oxford the year before and returned home to assume his responsibilities as his father's heir. Fortunately, he and his older half brother, who had arrived in their home a scant three weeks after Devlin's birth, had always been close friends and worked well together.
Nicholas Ware, aged nineteen, a handsome, fair-haired, sunny-natured young man who closely resembled his father in both looks and disposition, was about to begin the career as an officer in a cavalry regiment that had been intended for him from birth. He was looking forward to it immensely, especially since he was likely to see plenty of action, with hostilities heating up between Britain and France under the ambitious leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Lady Philippa Ware-Pippa to her family and close friends-was fifteen and rapidly turning from a pretty girl into a lovely young woman, to her mother's great regret. She was slender and dainty and blond haired and lively, and she was yearning for beaux and balls and a come-out Season in London in three years' time, as soon as she turned eighteen. An eternity away, in her opinion. Just around the very next corner, in her mother's.
Owen Ware was twelve. His mother sometimes described him as one-quarter pure sweetness and three-quarters undiluted mischief. He was intended for the church when he grew up, but both his parents agreed that the church might very well heave a collective sigh of relief if he eventually insisted upon another career-as a pirate upon the high seas, for example, or as the inventor of some mechanical horror, such as a hot-air balloon that would carry him off all the way to America and turn his mother's hair white long before he got there.
Lady Stephanie Ware was nine years old and everyone's favorite, though she sometimes felt that it was a real nuisance to be the youngest in the family, and the youngest by a long way when one thought of Ben and Devlin and Nicholas. Even Pippa. But what irked her more than anything else was the constant assurance by everyone around her-mother, father, siblings, governess, and nurse, to name a few-that any day now she would lose her baby fat and grow into a tall and slender beauty. Was she still a baby at the age of nine? When exactly was this miracle going to occur? And did her family love her so dearly just because she was fat and ugly and they felt sorry for her? But she tried hard not to be a complainer or whiner, for none of the rest of her family were either of those things, even Ben, who was not quite their brother and did not have the courtesy title even though he was older than Devlin. Stephanie wanted to be a worthy member of her family. She loved them all dearly. Especially her papa. And especially-never mind logic-Devlin. Not especially Owen, who was a pest of the first order and was always trying to frighten her in silly ways, like putting frogs in her rainy-day boots-as though she would not hear them croaking to be let out!-and long-legged spiders in her bed, which she simply picked up in her bare hand and transferred to his room. He was such a child.
Ravenswood Hall had been built and refashioned and added to and repaired and even almost totally pulled down and rebuilt once in the dim, distant past. The new hall, as it was still sometimes called, had in turn been altered numerous times since then, with the result that now, in these early years of the nineteenth century, though it was an imposing structure of gray stone, it could not be described by any distinct architectural name. It still had elements of its medieval predecessor. It was almost but not quite classical. And it had touches of almost everything between those two extremes. It was not particularly beautiful, though most people who were familiar with it might be surprised to hear that. To them it was simply Ravenswood, the grand house about which their lives revolved.
It was a familiar sight even to those who did not live within its walls, for it was clearly visible across the river that separated it from the village of Boscombe. Many grand homes were hidden for privacy within high walls and behind thick woodland. Not so Ravenswood. Grassland, dotted with a few ancient trees and liberally strewn with crocuses and daffodils in early spring, bluebells a little later, and assorted wildflowers through the summer and autumn, sloped gradually upward from the wrought iron gates and the low, moss-covered stone wall on the Ravenswood side of the river to the ha-ha, the steplike device that was invisible from the house but prevented grazing sheep from wandering too close to it and titillating their appetites with the cultivated flowers in their beds there and fouling the closely cropped lawns with their droppings.
The middle of the central, south-facing block of the house was one story higher than the rest of it and was approached by a steep flight of marble steps leading up to a pillared porchway with a carved stone frieze and peaked roof above and to a set of high double doors opening onto the grand entrance hall beyond. The massive east and west wings on either side of the central block and jutting forward from it were topped at the front rather incongruously with octagonal turret rooms. A visitor to the house had once compared them to onions-it had not been a compliment-and remarked that they completely ruined any claim to classical beauty the housefront might otherwise have presented to the world. The world did not appear to agree. Young people who lived at the hall or visited it frequently invariably loved those rooms. They had windows facing in every direction and were bright with natural light and warmed by the sun. They made wonderful playrooms and reading nooks and romantic retreats, though they did not necessarily perform all three of those functions at once.
The central block housed the family rooms and their bedchambers above. The west wing contained the more formal rooms, including the portrait gallery, the ballroom, the grand dining room, and reception rooms of varying sizes. The east wing had offices on the lower floor, guest chambers above them, and the nursery and schoolroom at the top, though the countess occasionally asked rhetorically of no one in particular whose idea that had been. There was a north wing, making of the house a great hollow square. That wing housed the family carriages, with the servants' quarters above.
A courtyard filled the hollow at the center of the house. It was approached by doors in each wing and by two magnificently carved stone archways and wide tunnels on either side of the marble steps in the southern wing. The courtyard was always lovely, with its neat, flower-bordered lawns and a rose arbor and fountain at the center. There were covered, cobbled cloisters about the perimeter.
The land north of the house was largely taken up by stables and paddocks on one side, kitchen gardens with extensive displays of flowers, vegetables, and herbs on the other.
The park stretched for a few miles to the east and west and consisted largely of rolling land with lawns and the occasional flower bed or copse of trees, walking and bridle paths, and driving lanes. There had once been a formal parterre garden before the house, its graveled paths constructed with geometric precision, its beds bright and fragrant with flowers and herbs of carefully coordinated colors and aromas and bordered with low, carefully clipped box hedges. It had been removed during the previous century, however, by the current earl's grandfather, who had preferred to look out of the drawing room windows and those of his bedchamber above upon a less dramatic, more rural scene. It was he who had had the ha-ha built and sheep introduced to the meadow below. Flat lawns and a few flower beds and artfully placed trees had replaced the parterres.
On the highest of the grassy rises to the west of the hall, within a short walking distance of the house, there was a pavilion built to resemble a Greek temple. It was an open structure with comfortable chairs and love seats within. The pillars that supported the roof formed a pleasing frame for the views in every direction: the river and the village, the rolling land of the park-which invariably brought stillness and peace to the soul-and the long lake to the west. Upon an island not far from the near shore of the lake there was another stone pavilion, not unlike the one on the hill but of smaller size. It was put to a variety of uses. Most often it sheltered the musicians the countess was fond of bringing in during the summer to entertain select gatherings of guests who were rowed across to the island to enjoy the music and the champagne and dainties both savory and sweet that always accompanied it. Sometimes more sizable orchestras played for larger audiences as they picnicked upon the shore, but on those occasions the music was a mere background to conversation and laughter as guests enjoyed one another's company and the beauty of their surroundings.
To the east of the hall there was more rolling land and what was known as the poplar walk-some people made a pun of the words poplar and popular, as though they were saying something everyone had not heard several dozen times before. A long, straight alley of lovingly cultivated grass was bordered on either side with poplar trees standing to attention like soldiers on parade. Benches were set at intervals along its edges for the relaxation of those who were in no hurry to reach the end of the walk. But at its end was an imposing glass summerhouse, a secluded retreat in which to sit on a summer day, or on a rainy day if one did not mind getting wet on the way there and back. A long line of hills lay some distance behind the summerhouse, separating the earl's land from that of Sir Ifor Rhys. A well-defined path over the crests of those hills was used by walkers wanting some vigorous exercise and by riders. Sometimes even a gig or curricle driver braved the narrowness of the trail and the steepness of the drops on either side for the sheer adventure of it and for the views, which were nothing short of awe-inspiring in a number of places.
Considered all in all, Ravenswood was surely one of the loveliest of the great estates in England. Or so those who lived within its influence believed quite firmly, most of them not having seen many or even any of the others.
And it was a happy place.
The earl and his family did not hoard either the house or the park for their exclusive use and pleasure. They did not keep it even just for members of the Ware family who lived nearby or for the countess's family, the Greenfields. No. The Wares of Ravenswood Hall were generous on a far wider scale with what was theirs. There were public days, two each week, often more during the summer, when the gates stood open and anyone was welcome to cross the bridge over the river and enjoy all the park had to offer, though it was understood without ever having to be stated or written down and posted on a board outside the gates that the family ought to be accorded some privacy close to the house.
However, the family did share even the house and its immediate environs on numerous occasions, some of them annual events. There was always a party for the children of the neighborhood on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, for example, and a supper and ball for the adults on Boxing Day. There was a picnic by the lake following a wildly popular treasure hunt on Valentine's Day, weather permitting. The weather did not always permit in the middle of February, of course, but even when it did not the festivities were not canceled. Rather, they were moved indoors, where all four wings of the hall were called into use for the treasure hunt, and everyone was herded into a couple of adjoining reception rooms in the west wing afterward for tea.
Village assemblies were often held in the ballroom, since the assembly rooms above the village inn could become so crowded when everyone attended-as everyone often did-that it was virtually impossible to dance. School events such as plays and achievement days were frequently held at the hall, since the schoolroom was not large enough to accommodate unlimited numbers of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in any great comfort.
The event that was always most eagerly anticipated each year, however, was the grand fete that was held on the last Saturday of July. It was a daylong affair. It began in the middle of the morning with a prayer by the vicar, songs by the young people's choir, and dances about the maypole performed by a group of young persons who gathered together once a fortnight all year long to learn new formations and to practice the steps. The maypole was always hoisted for the occasion on the lake side of the front lawn.