LILLIAN'S LIGHT HORSEMAN - EXCERPT
England—Ten years later
Lillian Hamilton packed the last of her belongings into her trunk and prepared to leave her aunt’s home for the last time. She doubted that she’d return. Her aunt had passed away three months before and now there was nothing keeping Lillian in England. She mourned her aunt dreadfully, her mother’s sister. Her Aunt Agnes had been kindness personified when Lillian’s father had died two years previously, leaving Lillian destitute and homeless. She owed her life to the woman and shuddered to think what would have happened to her had her Aunt Agnes not swept in and taken Lillian into her care. Not only had she given Lillian shelter and affection, but she’d also suggested that Lillian take her last name of Hamilton. The Baxter name, thanks to her father’s unscrupulous business dealings and gambling debts, was besmirched with suspicion and corruption, and no decent family or acquaintance would have their good reputation tainted by any association to it. Lillian’s already fragile social status would have been irreparably damaged had she continued in English society as Lillian Baxter. As it happened, a change of county , social circle and name meant that Lillian’s connection with her father and his dubious transactions was limited to those who knew the family personally. To all new acquaintances, she’d been largely able to start afresh, free from suspicion and conjecture.
It was a flight of fancy, however, to believe that she could continue to be untouched by her past. Angry energy rippled through her as she recalled the words of her aunt’s attorney.
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Miss Hamilton, but your aunt’s estate is tied up in legal disputes. As you will be aware, your father left considerable debts and there are a number of creditors applying to Mrs. Hamilton’s estate for reimbursement. You are her sole heir, but after legal damages and settlements, I fear that the lion’s share of your inheritance will be consumed.”
Lillian had been unprepared for the fury that had suffused her at the thought of her beloved aunt’s belongings and home being sold to pay Lillian’s irresponsible father’s debts. Suddenly her aunt’s asking Lillian to take her jewelry and hide it until such a time that Lillian could safely sell it, didn’t appear so odd. Her aunt must have been aware of her father’s debts and Agnes’ dying wish had been that her niece might have a little money before the creditors took everything.
Lillian had done what her Aunt Agnes had requested and as soon as she was able, she’d sold most of her aunt’s jewelry and any dresses and outfits that served no practical purpose. If Lillian were careful, she’d have money enough to last her for some months.
Her mind drifted to her father—how he’d pushed suitor after suitor in her direction in the hopes that she’d make an affluent marriage, and how she’d spurned every attempt of his matchmaking.
Lillian had desperately wanted to please her father with a good connection, but she’d never been able to forgive or forget her first love. The inability of hers to obliterate him from her memory had made courtship with another man almost impossible. Even after ten years, just thinking his name made her chest constrict painfully. By the time Lillian had taken up residence with her aunt, she’d despaired at ever finding true love again. She’d received more than her fair share of attention from a number of eligible gentlemen, but not one had touched her heart. She knew that her view of marriage for love was silly and juvenile, that matches were often made less for love and affection and more for the social advantages of beauty and position, but she couldn’t bring herself to relinquish her romantic notions and dreams. Now, at nearly twenty-six, she was left completely alone in the world with barely enough money to see her through to the end of the year.
Finally, she locked her trunk and walked from the room, checking the other chambers before she emerged into the hallway where she spotted the driver at the front door. She directed him to the bedroom to retrieve her belongings and took one last look around the home that had been her safe haven for the past two years. With a sigh and a heavy heart, she stepped outside, locking the door securely and with finality behind her. She would drop the keys at the attorney’s office on her way to the port where she would board a ship—a ship due to sail later that evening. Soon she’d be on her way back to the country of her birth, a country that she had loved passionately—a country that she’d been told she’d never see again.
As she sat waiting to board the vessel that would carry her to the next phase of her life, she reflected on the letter that had brought her to the decision to leave England. She retrieved the correspondence from her reticule, the paper now soft and fragile, the folds tearing slightly owing to her repeated examination. For what seemed like the hundredth time, she reread the words that had recently changed the course of her life so dramatically.
Dear Miss Hamilton,
I expect by the time this missive reaches you, your Aunt, Mrs. Agnes Hamilton, will have passed on. Please accept my sincere condolences for your loss.
I hardly know where to start so I shall start with the letter that I received from Mrs. Hamilton one month ago. She stated that she was very ill at the time of writing and expected to be taken into God’s hands in the very near future but that she could not rest in peace until she’d done all she could do for her beloved niece, a Miss Lillian Hamilton (Baxter).
Mrs. Hamilton explained the death of your father with his subsequent debt and her concern for your welfare and well-being once she’d departed this world. It appears that Mrs. Hamilton was quite knowledgeable about your life in Australia before your family left for England, and in particular about your connection to Mulga Creek Sheep Station and the Cartwright family. I can only assume that your mother imparted this information to your aunt before she died.
Now I shall get to the heart of my reason for writing to you. Mrs. Hamilton asked if there might be a position for you at Mulga Creek station as governess to Mr. Cartwright’s children. She’d heard that Mr. Cartwright’s wife had succumbed to the Spanish influenza and, while she was deeply saddened by the news, your aunt hoped that your education and upbringing would be of benefit to the Cartwright children, particularly as their mother has been so cruelly taken from them.
I must confess that I too have been concerned about the welfare of the children. Their father, while a good and decent man, is very busy with the demands of the sheep station and while I was taught my letters and sums, I do not have the education or the time necessary to instruct children in a position such as theirs.
Mr. Cartwright’s intention has been to engage a governess, so your aunt’s communication was warmly welcomed as quite fortuitous. I must also confess that I hope you take up the offer, as I would enjoy seeing you once more at Mulga Creek. I remember you to be a warm-hearted, sweet child and a charming young lady, and your aunt assured me that you have grown into a thoughtful and lovely woman.
I must warn you, however, that I have not imparted all of this information to Mr. Cartwright. He only knows that a lady by the name of Miss Hamilton will be taking the position of governess. I have not conveyed to him the whole truth of your identity. I will no doubt be chastised warmly for my duplicity but I believe that the past must stay in the past and that you should impart any explanations personally.
There is something else you should know. Mr. Cartwright fought in The Great War and might seem a little changed from what you remember. I will say no more of this and leave it to your own personal observations if, in fact, you decide to accept the position.
Please respond in the quickest haste so that I may make the necessary arrangements.
Mrs Millie Thompson
Head Housekeeper—Mulga Creek Sheep Station
Lillian reflected yet again on the letter’s contents. She’d read it so many times that she could quote it verbatim. Unfortunately, it raised more questions than it answered.
When had her mother spoken to her aunt about their life in Australia? Lillian had never mentioned that time. She preferred to forget it in order to attempt to move on. She’d been deluding herself, of course. It had been ten years since she’d seen William Cartwright, and still his image haunted her dreams. Then there was James Cartwright’s fighting in the war. How much had those experiences changed him? And had the death of his wife affected him terribly, perhaps adding to the change in character that Mrs. Thompson thought necessary to allude to? And where was William? Mrs. Thompson had not made mention of him in her missive, yet she must be partly aware of the connection that she and William had shared. A connection they’d had, at least until Lillian’s father had relocated the family to England just before William had married. Just thinking of William married to another sent a deep ache lancing through her. After all the years the pain had not lessened, but rather had morphed from an intense, overwhelming sensation into a dull, aching throb.
She shook off her momentary melancholy and thought about Mulga Creek Sheep Station, wondering if it had changed a great deal. It made sense that James Cartwright would require a governess. The property was too large and too isolated to enable the children to attend a standard school and she imagined that they were too young for boarding school. She pondered what James’ reaction would be when he learned that Lillian Hamilton was, in fact, Lillian Baxter. She could only hope that his reaction would be favorable. She’d always liked William’s older brother and she had to have faith that the feeling was mutual. At least if her correspondence was anything to go by, she would have an ally in Mrs. Thompson. She remembered the housekeeper as a kind and very capable woman who was much respected in the Cartwright household.
Lillian was risking considerable emotional distress by travelling back to Australia and opening herself up to a whole world of potential hurt, but her options were limited. She had no connections or dependable income to keep her in England.
No, she had no real choice but to take a chance and start afresh in Australia