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Authors: Mira Stables

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BOOK: The Byram Succession
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Mrs. Newton hesitated, studying the lovely face carefully. Tina was half smiling, content, a cream-fed cat look. She risked it. “Could you not bring yourself to reconsider his offer?” she ventured. “I pity him sincerely, such devotion as he has shown.”

“And so dull as he is,” retorted her daughter swiftly. “No, Mama, I could not. I never encouraged him—you
know
I would not do anything so bold and fast. And a mere baronet will not do for me, especially one who would bore me to distraction before the honeymoon was out. I was born for a higher destiny.”

For once Mrs. Newton was shocked. “My child! My angel! What
can
you mean?” she implored.

“Why—nothing in particular, Mama.” The angel-child smiled brilliantly. “At least—no particular person. But I cannot help knowing that I am beautiful. Also, though I am at some pains to hide the fact, that I am not without intelligence. Do you not agree that I was born to grace a nobler establishment than Sir John’s?”

And leaving her stunned parent to assimilate this disclosure of her ambitions she curtsied gracefully and withdrew in good order.

 

TWO

Damon leaned back
in the corner of the coach, one long leg outstretched to rest comfortably on the opposite seat, one elbow propped against the window so that the hand might shield his scarred cheek. Presently he would become aware that he had fallen once more into this over-dramatic, self-pitying attitude and the hand would be resolutely removed.

Meanwhile he was contemplating his immediate future with bitter distaste. Tonight would not be so bad. A quiet dinner with Kit in his rooms and then a box at the theatre. A box, where one could always withdraw into the shadows if the stares of the curious became too intrusive. But after that—well—he had given his promise and he would keep it, though the prospect appalled him. It was not as though he would be able to live quietly. If he was to achieve his purpose he must enter into all the distractions offered by the season, must see and be seen, ride, dance, converse. And he knew his world well enough to realise that there would be many eyes, hopeful—speculative, upon his every movement. All the match-making mamas would know that the Duke of Byram’s heir was looking about him for a wife. Such a situation could never be comfortable. In his peculiar circumstances it was little less than purgatory.

He shifted his position irritably and wondered why Judd should be permitting the horses to take this easy stretch at a walk. At this rate he was going to be late for his dinner engagement. But before he could make enquiry the coach stopped altogether and a moment or two later Judd’s melancholy countenance presented itself at the window.

“Road’s blocked, milord,” he announced gloomily. “There’s Parman’s Tunbridge Wells stage all across it and a curricle with a smashed wheel on its side in the ditch.”

“If there’s a stage coach involved there’ll be more than enough eager helpers to clear up the mess without our putting ourselves about,” said Damon indifferently. “Get on as soon as you can. You’ll have to spring ’em a bit when chance offers to make up time.”

Judd touched his hat in acknowledgement and retired to his box. If he was a trifle disappointed that his lordship had not required him to go forward and see what aid he could render, thus permitting him a closer view of the smash, he accepted it philosophically. He had expected nothing else. In the space of six months he had learned that Lord Skirlaugh avoided all unnecessary contact with his fellows. It was a pity, thought Judd, who, behind his slightly simian and mournful countenance, was actually a gregarious soul, but one couldn’t blame him. There was that silly besom in Watford, for instance, who had screamed blue murder at sight of milord’s face, and he, poor soul, not thinking of himself, just springing forward to help her up because she had tripped and fallen and spilled all the parcels out of her basket. Judd would not easily forget the look on his master’s face, or the voice in which he had been bidden to help the wench. He would rather have given her a piece of his mind but had not dared to do so lest his lordship should hear him.

He sucked his teeth reflectively and meditated on the ways of foolish women who cared so much for the outside of the cup and platter and little enough for what was within. His young lordship was as decent a lad as ever stepped, careful of his cattle and considerate of his servants. And a pleasant way with him of saying, ‘Thank you,’ for a man’s services, just as though he wasn’t well paid to render them. Judd was steadily coming to the opinion that in taking service with him he had made a very good move.

Evidently the accident was not of a serious nature, for it was not much more than twenty minutes before the stage coach came thundering down the road, its driver obviously anxious to make up for lost time acknowledging their presence with a cheerful twirl of his whip. Judd set his horses in motion, but held them to a walk. There was still the smashed curricle to negotiate and the road took a sharp turn to the left. That had probably caused the first accident. There was no telling what might be coming the other way, and
he
had no desire to end up in the ditch.

He edged his way neatly past the wreck and was just about to urge the team to greater speed when a young lady ran out into the road, waving to him to stop, and he perceived that a post-chaise was drawn up at the side of the road just in front of the curricle. A young man was stretched out on the grassy bank that bordered the road, an older female was kneeling beside him, chafing his hands in a rather ineffective way, and a postilion, wearing an air of sullen defiance, was announcing to the ambient air his determination to bide with his horses and not go for no doctor, which likely there wasn’t one any way.

“Oh! Please will you help me?” begged the lady breathlessly. “Or perhaps your master will be so kind,” she added a swift glance having shown that the solitary occupant of the coach was a gentleman. “This poor young man! He vowed he wasn’t hurt and indeed he seemed all right save for the bump on his head. One of the stage coach passengers gave him some cordial to drink from a flask that he had providentially placed in his pocket and it seemed to do him good at the time. Then, just after the stage drove off he suddenly collapsed. Miss Hetherstone and I have tried all we know to bring him round but nothing serves and the post-boy won’t go for a doctor though I begged him to. Do you think your master would permit you to do so? Is he in great haste to push on? Something should be done for this poor man, even though the accident was quite his own fault.”

“You could ask him, miss,” said Judd doubtfully, and then, as she turned to do so, hitched up the reins and sprang down from the box. It might be less awkward for both parties if
he
did the explaining.

Damon, impatiently aware of further delay and some kind of argument going on in the road, had just leaned forward to lower the window when the two appeared outside it. Seeing a strange female he sank back hastily, averting his head and gazing straight in front of him as Judd gave a brief account of the mishap. To the watching girl he looked insufferably proud and bored. And when, instead of getting out of the coach and going to see what he could do to help, he only directed the coachman to try and discover what ailed the fellow, mounting indignation spilled over into rash words.

“I wouldn’t have asked your help, milord”—she had heard Judd address him so—“if I had known you were so puffed up with your own importance,” she told him. “How shocking that your journey should be delayed by anything so commonplace as an accident. Pray forgive me! Being myself a person of no importance at all, I wasn’t even aware that gentlemen of your consequence did not so much as deign to glance at such inferiors as ventured to approach them.”

She regretted the outburst as soon as it was made. Not that he didn’t deserve every syllable and a good deal more beside, but it was certainly not her place to take him to task, and ripping up at him in that ill-bred fashion was scarcely the way to engage his assistance for the unfortunate traveller.

For a moment it seemed as though the top-lofty gentleman in the coach meant to ignore her remarks as completely as he had ignored her presence. Certainly he did not turn his head or look at her. But after a distinct pause, which left her fidgeting uncomfortably from one foot to the other wondering whether to go off after the coachman or stay where she was to outface her antagonist, he said cuttingly, “Your youth must serve as an excuse for your lack of conduct. One can only trust that you will study to behave more seemly when your schooldays are done. Meanwhile do not let me keep you from one who undoubtedly stands in more need of feminine assistance than I do.”

Fortunately, by the time that she had drawn breath adequate to the task of annihilation, Judd came running back. At the sound of the pounding footsteps the gentleman in the coach shed his air of indolence. “Serious?” he snapped, jumping down into the road without bothering to let down the steps.

“Yes, m’lord. At least, no—not the gentleman.
He’s
no more than dead drunk—half-sprung to start with, by what the post-boy says, and some fool on the stage knew no better than to pour half a pint of Hollands into him. It’s one of his horses. The poor brute is bleeding pretty badly from a gash in his breast. No one thought to look to them save to free them from the wreckage.”

The haughty gentleman might have appeared indifferent to the claims of suffering humanity but it was at once apparent that he had a softer heart for the animal kingdom. His long legs carried him swiftly enough to the scene of the accident and after one appraising glance he began issuing a string of orders, bidding Judd make haste and bring him clean linen from his valise—shirts would do—something to make a pad to bind over the wound. The post-boy, peremptorily bidden to go to the poor creature’s head, objected sullenly, vowing that the brute was savage. It had already tried to bite him once, and him only doing his best to get it clear of the tangle of harness.

“And a sad pity he didn’t succeed,” snapped milord. “But he’s in no case to bite you now, poor devil. You will be perfectly safe. He’s a valuable animal, too. I’ve no doubt his owner will reward you handsomely for your help in saving him.”


Him
!” snorted the post-boy in accents of deep disgust. “Him—as had no more sense than try to pass me on that bend with never a thought for what might be coming the other way? Drunk as a lord, the young care-for-naught. And hard-working lads like me, with a living to earn, we gets blamed if there’s a haccident. It’s never the quality’s fault—oh no! Blood kin to half the magistrates in the county,
they
be. His sort isn’t fit to drive an army mule, let alone high-couraged cattle like these.”

“On that head I find myself in complete agreement with your sentiments,” said milord pleasantly, realising that a good deal of the post-boy’s contumacious attitude might be set down to the shock of his own narrow escape and to shame that he had not noticed the animal’s injury. “Very well, then, do it to oblige me, there’s a good fellow.”

To the entire amazement of one, at least, of the bystanders, the post-boy gave a shamefaced grin, and obliged. Judd having returned with his lordship’s valise, the two of them set to work to bind a firm pad in place over the ugly looking wound. It proved an awkward task. The horse was young and nervous, and even in his weakened state he resented the handling of strangers, plunging feebly just when he was most required to keep still. Moreover the first makeshift bandage was too short to fasten securely and the job was all to do again.

Obsessed as he was by the need to have his swab in place before the animal lost too much blood, Damon scarcely noticed at what point a fourth assistant joined the party. He snatched thankfully at the length of linen that Judd handed him without pausing to enquire where it came from, and passed it about the horse’s body. This time is was amply long enough for his purpose. But it was not until Judd took one end from him to pull it taut that he realised that the hands holding the pad in position were small and white for all their firm efficiency, and that the impudent young hoyden who had taken him to task for his manners was standing quite coolly almost under the animal’s forefeet, her cheek pressed to the quivering neck, a crooning murmur of nonsensical endearments issuing from the same soft lips that had been so prompt to pour insults upon
him.
However, this was no time to be considering feminine sensibilities and the wench seemed to know what she was about. Damon dismissed her from his thoughts and concentrated on the adjustment and tightening of the linen that was holding the pad in place.

“He should do now,” he said finally, standing back and surveying the patient with a critical eye. “I’ve seen animals worse wounded recover completely. But he’ll need good care for a few days. How about his owner?”

They turned with one accord to survey the curricle driver, a nattily attired young gentleman of some nineteen or twenty summers, who lay in the blissful abandon of drunken slumber, his cheek resting on a stone as confidingly as though it were his pillow. The middle-aged female who had been tending him when the rescue party arrived on the scene had retired to the post-chaise and, for some inexplicable reason, had removed several portmanteaux from it. She was now engaged on repacking these, an unusual, not to say inadvisable proceeding on a gusty March day with lowering clouds promising a downpour at any moment. So intrigued was Damon by this eccentric behaviour that he momentarily forgot his disfigurement as he stared at her. By the time it had dawned upon him that that useful roll of linen had come out of one of those portmanteaux both the girl and the post-boy were gazing elsewhere. The muttered oath of the one, the sharply indrawn breath of the other had passed unnoticed.

He stooped over the slumbering youth and shook him roughly but without effect.

“It’s no kind of use, guvnor,” opined the post-boy. “I reckon he was lushy to start with, else he wouldn’t have gone for to pass me just there, and then some cove on the stage gave him gin to pull him together.”

Damon nodded. “Then we must take our own measures to see to the poor brute. His fellow will take no harm if we turn him loose in this field until his master comes to his senses. But this one needs warmth and proper attention. How far to the nearest posting inn?”

“Matter o’ seven mile, your honour,” the post-boy told him.

Damon shook his head. “He’d never make it,” he decided. “Any one hereabouts—some farmer perhaps—with a stable or barn where he could lie snug?”

The boy’s rather sulky face brightened considerably. “
That
there is,” he exclaimed quite eagerly. “Not a quarter of a mile away—and him my own uncle and as good a man as ever twanged. I’ll go bail for it he’ll be glad to oblige yer honour. If miss, here, will agree to it, I’ll take him now, across the fields and see him safely bestowed.”

‘Miss’ nodded vigorous approval of this suggestion, begging him only to wait till she could find her purse so that she could give him money to defray such expenses as his uncle might incur on the patient’s behalf.

BOOK: The Byram Succession
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