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Sheri Cobb South

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OF PAUPERS AND PEERS

 

Sheri Cobb South

 

Prologue

 

It was not with the intention of disobliging his family that Lord Robert Weatherly, in the year of our Lord seventeen hundred and twenty-five, fell in love with a dairymaid, although a moment’s reasoning must have been sufficient to inform him that his Molly, whatever her charms, could hardly be thought a suitable match for a son—even a younger son—of the fourth duke of Montford. But in the end it was love, not reason, that carried the day, and so Lord Robert carried his blushing bride to the altar. His father, the duke, celebrated the nuptials with a visit to the office of his solicitor, where he derived a certain satisfaction in drawing up a new will in which his second son was cut off without a shilling.

The scandal of Lord Robert’s
mésalliance
was eventually forgotten, as such scandals invariably are once more recent
on dits
drive them from public memory, but the duke never relented. An excruciatingly correct letter from Lord Robert to his father two years later notified the latter of the birth of his grandson, but this was never acknowledged, and communication between the two houses ceased. Eventually the elder branch of the family was able to forget the shame visited upon it by the simple expedient of ignoring the younger’s existence. Lord Robert’s descendants, for their part, had little time to waste in dwelling on such matters, occupied as they were with earning their bread.

And so the noble connection grew more tenuous with each generation that passed, to such an extent that fully a century later, when the ninth duke of Montford passed on to his eternal reward, the College of Arms was obliged to embark upon a four-month search to locate the tenth duke. But locate him they did at last, in the form of one Mr. James Weatherly, great-great-grandson of that long-ago fourth duke, and at present serving as curate of Fairford parish.

Informed of this discovery, Mr. Henry Mayhew, solicitor to the late duke, was dispatched at once from London to Fairford. Upon being set down at the local posting-house (for Fairford only offered one, being little more than a village), he obtained a room for the night and lingered there only long enough to remove the dust of travel from his person before setting out for Mr. Weatherly’s residence. This humble dwelling proved to be a hired room over a chandler’s shop.

“Is Mr. Weatherly in, please?” he inquired of the proprietress, a buxom woman with a maternal air.

“Aye, he is, but he’s giving a lesson,” was her unpromising response.

“May I at least arrange a time when I might see him?” Mr. Mayhew persisted. “I’ve come from London on a matter of some importance.”

The proprietress crossed her arms over her substantial bosom and regarded her visitor with mingled suspicion and respect. “London, eh? Very well, follow me.”

She led him through the back door of the shop and up a narrow staircase, which clung to the outside wall. As he neared the landing, Mr. Mayhew could hear the high-pitched voice of a young boy reciting declensions in labored Latin.

“Mensa, mensa, mensas—”

“Mensas?”
a second voice gently questioned.

“Mensam,”
the young scholar hastily corrected himself.
“Mensae, mensae—”

Without waiting for the end of the exercise, Mr. Mayhew’s hostess rapped on the door.

“Come in,” the more mature voice called from within.

“You’ve a visitor from London, Mr. Weatherly,” that gentleman’s landlady announced as she opened the door.

Both of the room’s inhabitants looked up at the unexpected visitor. The pupil, a stout lad of seven, went so far as to bounce up from his chair at this welcome respite from his studies. It was not the boy, however, but his tutor who drew Mr. Mayhew’s attention. A scholarly young man of twenty-seven, he was possessed of a countenance as gentle as his manner, with a rather long, thin face, fine blue eyes that might occasionally be seen to twinkle behind wire-rimmed spectacles, and golden locks that were prone to droop, as now, over his aristocratic brow. Indeed, he might have been accounted handsome, were it not for a rather prominent nose, which tended toward the concave. As he stood at his visitor’s entrance, it became evident that he was exceptionally tall, and thin to the point of lankiness—a circumstance which accounted for the fact that the sleeves of his threadbare black coat did not quite reach his wrists.

Mr. Mayhew, noting this dreary garment, at first thought that Mr. Weatherly must already have received word of his noble cousin’s demise. But a moment’s reflection reminded him that sober attire was indicative, not of mourning, but of Mr. Weatherly’s profession.

“Mr. James Weatherly?”

The younger man sketched a slight bow. “Yes. How may I serve you?”

Mr. Mayhew glanced uncertainly at the boy, and Mr. Weatherly, taking the hint, turned to address himself to his pupil. “You may go now, Thomas. Remember to study your declensions before next week’s lesson.”

The boy left the room readily enough, but
Mr. Mayhew was obliged to give the proprietress, hovering expectantly just inside the doorway, a rather pointed look. She gave a little huff of indignation, then turned and clattered back down the stairs.

Alone with his visitor, Mr. Weatherly spoke to the solicitor. “Is something amiss,
Mr.—?”

“Mayhew. And no, nothing is amiss.”

The mild blue eyes twinkled. “You will never convince me that you made the journey from London merely for the pleasure of making my acquaintance!”

This drew a smile from the solicitor. “No, it is considerably more than that.” He reached into his breast pocket and drew out a sheaf of papers. “It is my duty and privilege to inform you that you are now the duke of Montford.”

 

Chapter 1

 

For a long moment James stared at the solicitor in stunned disbelief. Then, ever so gradually, the corners of his mouth turned up in a surprisingly sweet smile framed, incongruously, by a dimple in each lean cheek.

“Who put you up to this?” he asked knowingly. “One of my cronies from University, I’ll be bound! Perry, perhaps, or Torrington. I haven’t heard from either of them in years!”

“I assure you, your Grace, I was never more in earnest.”

This lofty form of address had the effect of wiping the smile from James’s face. “But this is impossible!”

“Not at all.” Mr. Mayhew spread open his sheaf of papers, revealing a painstakingly transcribed family tree. “You are James Weatherly, only son of the late Arthur Weatherly, are you not?”

“Yes.”

“Then there can be no doubt.” The solicitor traced one finger along the genealogical chart. “Your father was the eldest son of Charles Robert Weatherly, who was the sole surviving son of Edward James Weatherly, who was the eldest son of Lord Robert Weatherly, second son of George Edward Arnold Weatherly, fourth duke of Montford.”

This revelation caused James’s jaw to drop, making his long, thin face even longer. Mr. Mayhew, seeing this reaction, was moved to inquire, “You truly did not know?”

The duke of Montford shook his head. “I had no idea. You are quite certain—yes, I see that you must be. I was orphaned at an early age, you see, and grew up among my mother’s people. I know very little about my father’s family.”

“Your father may not have known himself precisely where he stood in the succession. I believe there was a falling out between the fourth duke and his younger son a century or more ago, which resulted in Lord Robert’s being disinherited,”
Mr. Mayhew said. “Still, you must have encountered some of your Weatherly cousins while at school.”

James shook his head dazedly. “No, never.” He looked up sharply as a thought struck him. “If I’ve Weatherly cousins, wouldn’t one of
them
be duke?”

“Indeed they would, if they were descendants of the fourth duke’s eldest son. But the elder branch of the family produced no male heirs beyond the ninth duke, who died without issue last August. The cousins to whom I refer were descended from Lord Robert’s younger brother. You are quite certain you never knew any of them at Oxford?”

“I was educated at Cambridge,” James corrected him, “as was my father before me.”

“Interesting,” Mr. Mayhew acknowledged with a slight nod. “Oxford has been the university of choice for the Weatherlys for generations.”

“If Lord Robert’s quarrel with his father was as bitter as you suggest, that might explain why he chose to break with tradition,” suggested James.

“Indeed, it might. But no matter how bitter the quarrel, the estate was entailed. No matter how he might have wished it, Montford could not prevent Lord Robert—or any of his issue—from inheriting both the title and the estate, should it ever fall to them.”

“Estate?” echoed James, still struggling to take it in.

“Just over two million acres in Surrey,” Mr. Mayhew informed him.

“Two
—million
?”

“Attached to the principal seat, yes. There are also smaller holdings in Somerset and Monmouth, but none of these is over a hundred thousand acres. You will no doubt wish to acquaint yourself with your holdings as soon as possible, so I have taken the liberty of withdrawing on your behalf the sum of fifty guineas, which I trust will allow you to travel in a manner befitting your station.”

“Fifty guineas,” echoed James numbly, accepting from Mr. Mayhew’s hand a purse containing the equivalent of more than a year’s wages.

Mr. Mayhew’s eyebrows arched upwards in some concern. “If the sum is insufficient, I might—”

“No, no,” James assured him hastily. “Fifty guineas will be—quite sufficient.”

“I have also been charged to inform you that, should you choose to take your seat in the House of Lords, the earl of Torrington will be pleased to stand sponsor to you.”

“The House of Lords!” echoed James in some alarm. “Good God! What will I do?”

Mr. Mayhew permitted himself a wry smile. “As to that, your Grace, you are a wealthy man and a peer of the realm. You may do precisely as you please.”

* * * *

The queer thing about being a duke, reflected James as he walked to the vicarage for his customary Wednesday dinner with the parish incumbent, was that one did not feel like a duke at all, but rather like a curate and occasional Latin tutor caught in a bizarre but vivid dream.

You may do precisely as you please . . .
The phrase echoed in James’s still-spinning head.
Precisely as you please . . .
But what
did
he please? He had never been at liberty to consider the question before; had he been asked, he would have supposed that someday he might be given the living at Fairford upon the current vicar’s retirement, but with no money and no connections—no apparent connections, at any rate—he had never had reason to hope for more than this modest ambition.

“Ah, good evening, James,” said the reverend Mr. John Bainbridge, opening the door to admit his assistant and frequent guest. “I trust I find you well?”

“Quite well, thank you,” James assured him, shrugging his long arms out of his worn greatcoat. “The squire and his lady were good enough to send me a measure of coal for the fire, and there is hope that young Thomas may grasp Latin declensions yet. And a London solicitor called to inform me that I am the duke of Montford.”

James had hoped that speaking the words aloud might imbue them with some sense of reality. It did not, but at least he had the felicity of gaining a partner in his disbelief. The reverend Mr. Bainbridge, removing a dented copper kettle from the fire, whirled ‘round to confront his curate, pale eyes bulging in his wizened face.

“I—beg—your—pardon?”

“I am told there can be no mistake. You have the honor of addressing his Grace, the tenth duke of Montford. I cannot read a sermon from the pulpit without stammering, and yet I now have a seat awaiting me in the Lords! Is it not too ludicrous for words?”

“On the contrary, I have long felt that you might benefit from a change of scenery. Although I will confess, I never expected my prayers to be answered in quite so grand a manner. I say, my boy, will you pour? I fear these old hands are not as steady as they once were.”

“Of course, sir, but—a change of scenery? Why?”

“Forgive me, but I have often wondered if you might be happier in a place with fewer painful memories.”

James became very engrossed in the task of dispensing steaming liquid into two mismatched cups. “I beg you will not think of her. I do not—at least not more than two or three times a day,” he added with a humorless laugh.

Mr. Bainbridge did not know the details of his curate’s aborted romance, but he knew the young man was as sensitive as any artist or poet, and that his heart, once touched, would not survive the affair unscathed.

“Pray do not refine too much upon it,” the old vicar pleaded now. “I do not believe it was her intention to cause you pain.”

“No, for to do so she would have to recognize that I had feelings to hurt, would she not? I have no illusions about what I meant to her, Mr. Bainbridge. She wanted someone upon which to practice her charms and, Fairford offering nothing more promising in the way of unattached gentlemen, she set her sights on me. When I made her an offer of marriage, she was much shocked to discover that I took her seeming partiality seriously! Depend upon it, she is much happier in London, where I daresay she has captivated half the peerage by now.”

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