When American heiress Clarissa Wentworth journeys to England to meet her unknown relatives she expects to find the beautiful, gracious estate her late father had described. Instead she is catapulted into a decaying mansion populated with an unpleasant assortment of relatives, each with their own agenda for her and her fortune. Worst of all is her grandfather, who demands she turn complete control of the fortune left to her by her father and then marry her dissolute cousin Basil in order to preserve the title, the estate and the family name.
As her liberties are restricted and her grandfather becomes more and more importunate there are two bright spots in Clarissa’s growing despair - a great champion of a horse called Saracen and a handsome, enigmatic neighbor named Robert Stanhope. The more Clarissa is drawn into her relatives’ scheming the more both man and horse come to mean to her until at last she is forced into a choice destined to alter her life forever.
I was in bed and the night candle extinguished when the door opened, admitting Sir Mordecai. There was a fat moon out which, through the undraped window gave enough light that no artificial illumination was needed. He was still dressed in what he had worn at dinner, and in his hands carried a small lap desk for writing.
“Sir Mordecai?” I asked, struggling into a sitting position.
“Be quiet, girl,” he snapped in a sharp whisper, pulling a chair so close to my bedside that once he sat his knees pushed against the mattress. “Sound carries in these old halls. Now that you have met Basil it is time you know what needs to be done.”
“Needs to be done? You mean by me?”
Even in the watery moonlight his frown was very evident. “Of course by you. You must save the Wentworths and the Hall.”
That alarmed me, but by the time he had finished outlining his plan - which he obviously thought I would acquiesce to without question - I was blank with shock and outrage.
His plan was masterly, if one should agree with him, devilish and high-handed if one did not, and I most certainly did not! According to him, the fate of the Wentworth family depended entirely on me - or, more honestly, on the fortune my father had made and left to me.
Basil was a gambler and a wastrel, but however unsuited he was to succeed to the almost holy office of the Wentworth title, he was indeed the heir, and Sir Mordecai was convinced Basil would destroy everything within months of inheriting. In that the old man was probably quite right.
“When he inherits he will eject everyone from the Hall, destroy the estate with neglect, squander what little money is left and drag the Wentworth name - an honorable name, long respected in this country - into the mud. Do you want that upon your conscience?”
Of course I found the prospect horrifying, but could not get my mind around the fact that such an unsatisfying turn of events should rest upon my conscience, and so said to Sir Mordecai. He therefore proceeded to enlighten me, angering and frightening me more with every word.
My purpose in existing, according to Sir Mordecai, was two-fold - to repair the family fortunes by handing over my inheritance to Sir Mordecai and to stop Basil and the inevitable collapse of the family he was sure to engender. I was an heiress and a Wentworth, so Basil was already predisposed to marry me - rather, marry my fortune - which was what Sir Mordecai intended.
When I protested with anger and disgust, he explained that it was the only way to save the Hall and the good name of the Wentworths. Why, he asked in indignant tones, did I think he had demanded my father return to England if not to marry and sire sons, sons who would oust Basil from the succession? When he learned that my father was dead, he reorganized his scheme so that I should become the savior of the Wentworths.
Then he went on to explain once more, though this time in much more distressing detail how my duty that night was to write two letters - one to Coutt’s Bank, immediately putting all my monies deposited there under Sir Mordecai’s sole control. The other was to my Uncle Bernard, telling him to sell everything I owned and transfer the monies to Coutt’s, which would put those proceeds under Sir Mordecai’s control. That way when Sir Mordecai died the monies would go into a trust managed by some good friends of his, thus ensuring that while Basil would inherit the title, I would be his wife and thanks to the trustees Basil could touch none of the money, making Wentworth Hall and the estate safe from his depredations.
Obviously proud of his machinations, he went on to say the plan was unassailable. He even believed that my prompt acceptance of his demand to my father to come had been a sign from Heaven signaling his success.
“You’re mad,” I said at last. “Why should I give up everything my father worked for, everything he wanted me to have, just to sell myself into slavery to a most unwholesome man whom I do not like just to protect a place about which I care nothing?”
He could have not appeared more shocked had I slapped him. “You are a Wentworth! Wentworth Hall is your home. It is in your blood. You will do as you are told, or I will see it done for you. There are bigger things involved here than your petty feelings!”
My father’s fortune and my future were hardly petty, but disagreeing with Sir Mordecai would be like ordering a rock to become a feather. The man had to be completely mad.
“I will leave you now,” he said with portentous dignity, putting the lap desk on my bed, “so you can write your letters. I will come for them in the morning and see they are sent forthwith. You need not seal them - I must read them to make sure you understood my instructions correctly.”
In other words, to make sure I had done as he wished. And I believed entirely that if I did not do as he wished, he would be more than capable of writing such letters over my signature. Since he had demanded the letters be unsealed, there was no way I could write anything he did not approve of and be sure that it would end up anyplace but on the fire.
Surely this was a situation of which neither Mrs. Radcliffe nor any other novelist had ever thought to put on paper!